Planet of the Apes
reviewed by Steve Sailer
UPI, July 26, 2001
If it's been 33 years since you last saw the famous - but surprisingly seldom re-watched - original "Planet of the Apes," you may well be disappointed with Tim Burton's hotly-anticipated "reimagining" of the old monkeys-rule-mankind concept, especially if you have been seduced by the recent hype about the greatness of the irritating but memorable 1968 semi-classic.
The middle-aged media types at the screening I attended gave the new movie a tepid response. They seemed particularly disappointed by the not-so-surprising surprise ending. The only thing most people can remember about the first film is a horror-struck Charlton Heston on the beach. Of the hundreds of twist endings screenwriter Rod Serling dreamed up, "Planet of the Apes" featured his most bleakly majestic effort. In contrast, the new movie's conclusion resembles one of Serling's run-of-the-mill "Twilight Zone" bits of cleverness.
This could bode poorly for the film's chance for repeat business. As Paul Newman has pointed out, while a script needs a killer first fifteen pages to interest a studio, it requires a great last fifteen pages to hook an audience.
In contrast, Burton's movie features a rousing middle dragged down by a derivative opening and contrived closing. Still, "Jurassic Park III" made $93 million in its first seven days despite a limp conclusion, and "Planet of the Apes" is a lot more entertaining than "JP III."
In fact, kids who see Burton's rendition first, then rent the old one, will no doubt prefer the 2001 film over what resembled a special two hour episode of "Star Trek." The modern acting is less bombastic, the dialogue less metaphysical, the makeup better, and the ape world more detailed. (As with "JP III," parents who don't mind their kids watching lots of sci-fi violence won't find much else that's objectionable.)
Fans of Burton (director of "Batman" and "Edward Scissorhands"), though, are likely to wonder why his movie looks like it could have been made by Robert Zemeckis ("Forrest Gump") - a talented and adventurous filmmaker, but one with less of a distinctive personal style.
Oddly enough, despite Burton's history of directing some of Hollywood's strangest movies, his "Apes" reworking succeeds more at finding sensible fixes for many of the flaws in the old film than with putting his own stamp on it.
In fact, the new "Planet of the Apes" less resembles the macabre vision of its famous director than the fact-driven style of its co-screenwriter William Broyles, Jr. This former Editor-in-Chief of "Newsweek" earlier penned two fine engineer-solving-a-problem vehicles for Tom Hanks: "Apollo 13" and "Cast Away."
As the crash-landed astronaut, Mark Wahlberg ("Boogie Nights") is likeable, if slightly dim-looking, in the easy-to-identify-with Hanks-style role of the Reluctantly Heroic Everyman. He's the opposite of Charlton Heston's bitter, misanthropic space captain, whose badgering of his own crewmates made the early parts of the first movie distasteful.
Beyond changing all the characters, the level of civilization (the humans can now talk but have only Stone Age weapons, while the apes have reached the stage of ancient Rome), most of the plot, and even the planet (this one has three moons), the Burton-Broyles' version straightens out the ape species' personalities. In the unscientific original, the orangutans were masterful, the gorillas brutish, and the chimpanzees humane. But we've all watched a lot of nature documentaries since 1968. So, more accurately, the orangutans now are comical, the gorillas intimidating but noble, and the chimpanzees volatile.
Still, there's only so much that even a bright fact-grubber like Broyles can do to make a talking monkey movie realistic. Yet, just by trying, he's cut down on Burton's freedom. The only aspect of this unexpectedly wholesome film that's Burtonishly creepy is Helena Bonham Carter's chimp. That real-life aristocrat plays a simian aristocrat, a radical chic "human rights activist," who develops a crush on Wahlberg (unrequited, I'm glad to say, despite rumors to the contrary).
Despite the virtues of the new film, I don't think it will outlive its predecessor.
Granted, Serling's script was his usual philosophical rehash of Big Issues: nuclear war, the Scopes Monkey Trial (with orangutans as the jury), and the civil rights struggles of the 1960's. But the obviousness of his fable about racial oppression was made palatable by the sheer bizarreness of casting Charlton Heston as the Angry Black Radical.
Further, as exasperating as Heston's scenery-chewing could be, the star of "The Ten Commandments," "Ben-Hur," and "Omega Man" did radiate a messianic charisma. This undermined Serling's conventional criticism of the human race with an irrational but powerful subtext: "My species, right or wrong." Even though the new movie shows Wahlberg actually leading humanity in armed rebellion, it's still more fun just to imagine Heston as a sci-fi Moses rallying the enslaved human race to kick some serious monkey butt.
Rated PG-13 for violence, but not much else.