Burton’s ‘Ape’ remake misses the point

· Jul 30, 2001 Tweet

Filmic mastermind Tim Burton has described his new take on “Planet of the Apes” as a “reimagining” of the basic concept of the original, and as such his version works. A modern adaptation of what should be considered a 60s classic, Burton’s version is exactly what would have been spawned had the idea never crossed anyone’s mind until 2001.

As anything else, it fails.

In Burton’s defense, he never could have imagined how intelligent his spin on the classic ape flick would make his predecessor seem — and how utterly juvenile his would look in return.

Thirty-three years after Franklin Schaffner awed the world with what is essentially an animal rights movie, somebody had the idea for a remake. Not a bad idea, considering the makeup in the original — despite its superiority at the time — now looks primitive and almost laughable. Admittedly, it is hard to watch a number of the more serious scenes in the original (and there are a number of very serious scenes) without laughing.

If not Burton, who else could get such a seemingly laughable subject to be taken seriously? This is the man who drew adult audiences to a troubled, borderline-sociopath named Pee-Wee Herman; the man who led millions of adults to watch a superhero movie (“Batman”); the man who captivated audiences with a horny poltergeist named Betelgeuse. Burton has been Hollywood’s sick and twisted little brother for too many years, and with “Planet of the Apes” he was given the chance to step out of the dark and shine. For fans of his darker work, “Apes” is a flattening disappointment, for this is not the Burton of old.

Burton’s reimagined planet is a lush, vegetated forest, over-fogged for effect and always, always dark. While watching David Fincher’s “Se7en,” someone once asked me: “Does it ever stop raining here?” Sure enough, short of the last scene in the movie, the anonymous metropolis of “Se7en” never lets up with the rain, just as Burton’s Ape city never faces the light of day. In “Se7en” it worked. Here, it draws attention to the fact that nearly half the movie was shot on soundstages. Like a halter-topped streetwalker, the film wreaks of half-assed cheapness as Burton appears to have prostituted himself and the original concept in every way imaginable.

As space-ace Leo Davidson, a half-assed and NSYNC-ified version of Charlton Heston’s Col. George Taylor, Mark Wahlberg (“The Yards”) flexes his machismo and strains his brain in a space station training monkeys to fly into a magnetic storm that his team of Air Force astronauts is tracking. Not since Denise Richards was cast as a nuclear scientist in 007’s “The World is not Enough” has such a glaringly difficult-to-believe casting decision been made. Heston was notorious for his over-acting in the role–one of the greatest critiques of the original. Wahlberg’s strategy seems to have been exactly the opposite. He waltzes through a tame performance that leaves little reason to sympathize for or even care about his character — a necessity that the movie’s fate rides on.

After a defiant act that sends Leo hurtling into space in chase of a stranded test monkey, he crash lands on (chilling drum roll for dramatic effect) the “Planet of the Apes.” We’ve all seen the rest.

Here, a wicked primate general named Thade leads an army of apes and chimps in defending a civilization whose only problem seems to be an infestation of humans. One of the major flaws with the original was that, on a planet that was presumably populated predominantly with monkeys, we only saw one small village and little sign of life elsewhere. Here, the trend is continued, but to a greater extent. There is talk of a royal family, a parliament, and a vast army; but we are treated only to a small village nestled on the edge of a vast jungle with little sign that there is life elsewhere. “Planet of the Apes” is demoted to “Small Community of Apes.”

As Thade, Tim Roth (“Lucky Numbers”) delivers a rather vile performance, reminiscent of his character in “Rob Roy,” only hairier. Always hyperventilating, Thade is an overzealous warmonger with little time to relax. His shoulders constantly dip and shift from side-to-side and when he gets worked up Thade loses his human instinct and takes to the trees, pounding away at his chest in a howling temper tantrum. As the human rights activist Ari — the polar opposite to Thade — Helena Bonham Carter (“Fight Club”) delivers an equally stellar performance. Despite Wahlberg’s stale act, Carter creates a one-way chemistry, derived mostly out of sympathy that leaves the audience begging for a man-ape romance. More than anyone else, Roth and Carter nail the performances that Burton would have needed for his film to work.

Joining the cast is a handful of colorful simian caricatures. An orangutan named Limbo (Paul Giamatti, “Man on the Moon”) provides more than his fair share of laughs while making a living off of selling humans as pets and slaves. The hulking Michael Clarke Duncan (“The Whole Nine Yards”) would have been more than effective as Attar, Thade’s right hand man, were it not for his gravelly, faux-gorilla voice. Try making your best Incredible Hulk/King Kong voice and you’ve nailed Clarke’s accent on the head. There’s just too much humor in that. Even funnier is original-hero Charlton Heston’s (“Any Given Sunday”) turn as Thade’s dying chimpanzee father. One in a never-ending series of original “Planet of the Apes” references, Burton lays on the nostalgia quite heavily. He eventually crosses the line with a number of classic “Apes” phrases, including but not limited to Heston’s own “Damn them all to hell” tirade.

In terms of reproducing the original, Burton missed out on other key opportunities, especially the recreation of staple “Planet of the Apes” scenes. Barely a minute is spent on the classic manhunt scene that serves as our first introduction to apes. The original movie combined primitive, percussion-driven music with a savage attack through heavily cropped field. Armor-clad apes on horseback picked off fleeing humans like they were field mice, quickly establishing the inferiority of these confused and primal beings. Here, Burton flies through a quick action sequence done more for effect than establishing a social order. Also botched is the shocking ending that left audiences in awe of the original. Faced with an array of options, Burton cops out and delivers possibly the most disappointing surprise ending ever to grace the silver screen.

More than its flawed characters and inability to balance innovation and invention, Burton’s film fails on its seemingly inability to understand the heart of its predecessor. “Planet of the Apes” was far more than the action film Burton has created. Despite its hokey appearance, it had more than enough heart and message to deserve the talent of Charlton Heston and it utilized his strengths perfectly.

“Planet of the Apes” is a civilization where the rights of apes and humans are compared and debated. It is clear that he who acts more human — stands straight, talks, shows manners, doesn’t slobber — is civil and deserves to be treated as such, even if he is an ape. Unlike his hairy companions, the instinctively-violent Thade spends more of his time climbing trees, beating his chest and howling, suggesting a thinning line between the two species. Still, Burton’s version finds the disparity between humans and apes harder to believe. In the original, humans lacked the ability to talk, a crucial factor in determining how advanced and civilized a species is. Here, Burton’s humans not only talk, but they seem just as smart as their captors — so why the harsh treatment? Instead of a movie about species’ rights, Burton has concocted a horror story — a bad dream instead of a moral dilemma.

“Planet of the Apes” presented a moral dilemma. It was an animal rights film at heart, but it was never quite understood as such. It was understood as a science fiction film, and that is what Burton remade it as.



This article was published Jul 30, 2001 at 12:00 am and last updated Jul 30, 2001 at 12:00 am


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