Once again it is my sad duty to report to you that a supposed summer blockbuster is a dud. At least this time, we can use occasion to remember some landmark film making from the past.
Quirky director Tim Burton ("Batman," "Edward Scissorhands") seemed like a possibly inspired choice to update the 1967 classic, "Planet of the Apes." Burton calls this a "re-imagining" rather than a remake. Unfortunately, it shows little imagination.
Despite bigger special effects, more action (though with nothing nearly as stunning as the cornfield chase in the original) and even better ape makeup, this is a rather tame flick intellectually, going for pop culture jokes and obvious political quotes, rather than the character-driven, satirical allegory of the original.
Take the slide from Charlton "Ben Hur" Heston as lead, to dull Mark Wahlberg ("Three Kings"), apply to every aspect of this movie, and you'll get the idea of the devolution involved here.
Wahlberg plays Leo Davidson, an Air Force captain who crashes on a planet ruled by apes. He soon is the pet project of a HUMAN rights activist, Ari (Helena Bonham Carter) the pampered daughter of a powerful ape senator. She is the object of affection of gorilla General Thade (Tim Roth) who hates humans.
The problem, however, with the "moral" arguments over how humans should be treated, is that in this movie, they can talk, also. So, rather than Leo's presence representing a threat to the basis of ape civilization; in this version, he becomes the humans' Spartacus. (Though THIS Spartacus is strangely determined to take the million to one shot that he can reverse his course and go back to being an Air Force captain, instead of being King of the World with a supermodel (Estella Warren) by his side.
But it makes little sense that these people who talk like moderns-- and we are informed, outnumber the apes 4 to 1-- couldn't have revolted without Leo. And we won't even get into the weird interspecies love triangle (unconsumated).
The new "Planet of the Apes" becomes an animal rights argument with humans being asked the "How would YOU feel?" question at every stinking turn.
Burton tries to give us a shock ending that rivals the original, but instead undercuts the whole fairly interesting scenario that had just been laid out, in which we find out how the apes on the planet got to be how they are-- though just where all those humans came from is NOT answered.
Now, back to the good stuff:
Charlton Heston gave one of his epic performances as the cynical American astronaut, George Taylor. When his ship crashes on a planet where apes rule and Man is treated as the hunted animal, this misanthrope is forced to become humanity's sole defender.
Taylor is captured and studied by two chimpanzee scientists, Dr. Cornelius (Roddy McDowell) and his wife, Zira (Kim Hunter). When they learn that the man can both write and speak, they want to use Taylor as proof of their theory that apes descended from man; a notion that is vigorously denied by Zaius (Maurice Evans) the head of the ape religion and state.
Just when you think, however, that this film is moving in an antireligious, Scopes Monkey Trial mode-- only in reverse-- it is made abundantly and shockingly clear just which species is created in the image of God, and has squandered that legacy. After a series of confrontations, both violent and intellectual, the truth is revealed in one of the screen's most memorable and shocking surprise endings.
"Planet of the Apes" may be Swiftian satire, but its suspenseful and action filled story is accessible to all ages. Rod Serling and Michael Wilson's script from the novel by Pierre Boule ("Bridge on the River Kwai") plays out like an epic "Twilight Zone."
The newly restored video lets us enjoy the epic feel brought to the project by director Franklin Schaffner (especially on widescreen DVD). Schaffner had a wonderful run of movies at this time that included "Patton" and "Papillon," and had a great sense of how to bring intimate human emotions onto a big stage. This is something that eludes Burton.
There is, however, something very appropriate things about the decline of the "Apes" in Burton's movie. The point of the original is that the apes imitate everything human from politics to religion, but without soul and without innovation. That applies to Burton's "Planet of the Apes," as well--though it is no worse than most of the legacy tarnishing sequels that followed the great original.