Beneath the Planet of the Apes

Tim Burton’s remake doesn’t measure up. 

Planet of the Apes
Directed by Tim Burton
20th Century Fox

The plodding remake of Planet of the Apes offers proof of Hollywood’s simian instincts: Monkey see old hit, monkey do remake. The movie, directed by Tim Burton, isn’t laughably bad—but Battleship Earth-type laughs at its expense would make it less of a slog. It lacks the bite of Pierre Boulle’s 1963 novel, the twilight-of-America sucker-punch of the 1968 film adaptation, and the maniacal graphic charge of even a messed-up Burton effort like Mars Attacks! (1996). It’s just pointless. 

Reportedly, the impulse for this project (in the early ‘90s, before Burton was aboard) was to go back to Boulle’s original, which turns out to be more fertile than I’d imagined. It’s a Gulliver saga—a satire of contemporary mores disguised as a fantasy-adventure. Boulle’s monkey planet isn’t Earth but its funhouse-mirror image in the orbit of Betelgeuse, where evolution made a sort of U-turn: The dominant humans became complacent (too dull-witted, we learn, even to go to the movies!), while the apes—always more physically dexterous—began to speak and reason with acuity. By the time the astronaut protagonist, a twittily superior Frenchman, crash-lands, Homo sapiens have lost the power of speech and are useful largely for medical experiments. The apes strive to understand their origins by studying the brains of their less complex relatives.

In the late 1960s, screenwriters Michael Wilson and Rod Serling recognized the potential in Boulle’s premise for a direct civil-rights parable: Hey, white American patriarch—see how you like being subjugated! While Franklin Schaffner’s epic Planet of the Apes didn’t bring out all the novel’s ironies, it was fast, harshly funny, and bracingly in synch with its era: In the shadow of race riots and the Vietnam War, the confusion of right-wing WASP icon Charlton Heston as he’s shackled and patronized by monkeys was priceless. (Heston, increasingly out of fashion, knew an opportunity when he saw one and began to specialize in end-of-civilization scenarios like The OmegaMan [1971] and Soylent Green [1973].) Of all the Apes films, the most Boulle-like is probably the Paul Dehn-scripted third, Escape From the Planetof the Apes (1971), in which the genial chimps Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) and Zira (Kim Hunter) travel back to our time and trigger fear of an ape planet. As Alex Abramovich has described in Slate, the series chronicled—and ended up championing—the kind of civil-rights militancy that would make Spike Lee blanch.

Working with such juicy material, it’s astounding how little Burton and his screenwriters have done to add their own 21st-century stamp. Devoid of either contemporary resonance or Boulle-ian satire, the new Planet of the Apes is chiefly an occasion for special effects, endless chases, chaotic combat sequences, Rick Baker’s intricate makeup, and the witty production design of Rick Heinrichs. The movie begins promisingly—not brilliantly, a bit lumberingly, but promisingly. On board a space lab, astronaut Mark Wahlberg attempts to train a monkey called Pericles for flight, trades barbs with a liberal female scientist who takes the animal’s side, then foolishly gives chase in a shuttle when Pericles gets sucked into one of those space/time-rupturing electromagnetic storms that make so much of modern science-fiction possible. Many millions in (reportedly reshot) FX later, he finds himself in the company of humans in loincloths fleeing gorillas in full military regalia.

Our first glimpse of the master race is a treat. Someone had the marvelous idea of having the apes move like—well, apes instead of hippity-hoppity humans: They lope, scamper at alarming speeds, and leap through the air and on top of their prey with a screeeech. How ingenious to have an ape city that’s vertically oriented, to take advantage of those long arms and that zest for climbing and swinging. Baker’s make-ups aren’t that much of an advance on the great originals, but they have more textural details, and the faces are more impudently snouty. The gorillas, led by Michael Clark Duncan, are framed like Turkish generals: They wear burnished, cone-shaped helmets to accommodate their elongated skulls and issue orders in deep, plaster-cracking roars. Tim Roth plays a baddie ape called Thade, and when he doesn’t get his way the movie stops for him (and his stuntman) to bark and howl and ricochet off the walls. Burton seems most in his element here—in the bits of ape schtick that give the actors a chance to show some personality. He has cast his girlfriend, Lisa Marie, as the bitchy sexpot young wife of the town’s leading citizen, and one of the most memorable shots in the film is when she straddles her male and then bobs up and down in a spastic frenzy of foreplay. (I hope she got to practice that at home.)

Unfortunately, that bit is in the middle of what should be a thrilling scene—Wahlberg’s escape from the city—and it suggests where Burton’s heart really lies. The mechanics of action sequences don’t interest him, and once the chases begin the story goes into a stall from which it never recovers. There’s plenty of dead time to ask ourselves: What—and whom—are we rooting for? The dullard hero? Helena Bonham Carter plays a human- (i.e., animal-) rights activist, the counterpart to the female scientist in the first scene, and we wait for Wahlberg’s character to register the irony of his situation—and maybe take advantage of how the apes underestimate him the way he once underestimated apes. But the character is an impenetrable slab of beef, and the actor never seems all there. He’s so square that he makes Charlton Heston—who briefly pops up here as an ape—seem like Jack Kerouac.

Burton, whose sympathies have always rested with misfits, freaks, and madcaps, clearly doesn’t know how to relate to this dumb jock or the people he leads. In a switch from the novel and original film, the planet’s human denizens are able to speak, an innovation that manages at once to: a) kill the symmetry between Earth and the monkey planet; b) kill the humor in the apes’ reaction to the hero’s use of language; and c) make the humans seem unfathomably passive. What’s the point of letting them speak if they have nothing interesting to say? They’re not primitives, they’re a chorus line of blanks. In one scene, a little ape gets a human child as a pet, and Burton holds on the blond, tear-stained girl’s face in her cage. But there’s no explanation for why a talking (and obviously despondent) human child would make a good plaything, and when she’s freed the little girl is simply discarded from the film—a device, a pet. 

Planet of the Apes has been designed and photographed (by Phillipe Rousselot) with real artistry, but in all the ways that matter it’s hack work. The script cannibalizes famous lines from the first movie for easy, self-congratulatory laughs and even tosses in such gems as “Extremism in defense of apes is no vice.” (A TV critic near me thought that was a howl—he repeated it to his colleagues.) The resolution of the ape/human conflict is like a bad week on Star Trek, and what follows is even stupider. Because the original had a killer punch line, this one does, too—actually straight from Boulle’s novel, where it had been elaborately set up. Here, it doesn’t make a lick of sense. Has Burton lost his wits? So close to Betelgeuse, he’s a million miles from Beetlejuice