The Hollywood trend of remaking movies that were once untouchable sadly continues with Planet of the Apes (‘01). The “reimaginations”, as the industry likes to call them, wouldn’t be so painfully sacrilegious if the updated versions (I don’t dare call them visions) lived up to the term coined to describe them. But they usually don’t, and one often leaves the movie theater wondering why Hollywood even bothered (the 1999 version of Psycho comes to mind).
Planet of the Apes (‘01) wouldn’t be such a disappointment were it not for the ingenuity of the original. There’s little doubt that director Tim Burton and production designer Rick Heinrichs, who last collaborated on Sleepy Hollow (‘99), have again created a visually exciting movie. Burton usually does. Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, and the first two Batman movies, are all dark stories that fit perfectly within the filmmaker’s style. But where Burton excels at atmosphere, he often fails as a storyteller. Unfortunately for him, the strength of the 1968 original, which was co-written by Rod Serling, was its story. This version suffers from the comparison.
Did You Notice?
Apes (‘01) opens up with a chimp piloting a space pod through a landing mission. When things begin to go wrong and the primate panics, Astronaut Leo Davidson (Mark Wahlberg) intercedes from outside the pod’s viewing screen, stops the simulation program, and opens the hatch to calm the chimp down. The sequence plays out nicely as it upsets the expectations of who is in charge: the chimp, the human, or the filmmaker. It’s one of the more interesting scenes in the movie. It’s too bad the movie progresses in the opposite direction.
When the larger spaceship and its crew of scientists and laboratory animals encounter an electrical storm, the chimp gets called into action. Reluctantly, Leo packs his pal back into the space pod and sends him off to collect data on the storm. When communication with the pod is quickly lost, Leo disobeys orders, uttering “Never send a monkey to do a man’s job”, and follows his friend into the atmospheric oddity. He’s immediately sucked into a wormhole and eventually crash lands on another planet.
From there Davidson, along with all of the other human captives, is taken to the city to be sold in the human slave market. One of the first customers interested in the new stock is General Thade (Tim Roth), a malevolent military commander who despises humans as much as the liberal policies of the current administration. Thade ultimately desires power, so when his father (played by Charlton Heston) warns of a legend that could destroy their race, Thade comes to suspect Davidson’s involvement in the origin of their species.
Meanwhile, Davidson escapes his jail cell and, with the help of Ari (Helena Bonham Carter), escapes the city in search of a way to make contact with his mother ship. Thade plots his trap to destroy Davidson and the human race, while Davidson gradually becomes misunderstood as some sort of savior saint for his human followers.
Cast Gets it Right
Helena Bonham Carter has just the right touch, playing a politician’s daughter who is sympathetic to the plight of the humans. Her empathy is projected nicely through her makeup and gestures. Tim Roth also does an excellent job playing an ape with an animalistic thirst for dictatorship. Even Mark Wahlberg seems to know what he’s doing, as an astronaut suddenly stranded on an evolutionarily inverted world.
Satire Can Kill a Good Story
In the end, most who view the new film will probably not be very familiar with the original version (which I must have seen on television when I was six or seven year old), and therefore may find it easier to enjoy. Sometimes, the wonder experienced from being captivated by a movie you saw as a child can never be matched. Planet of the Apes (‘01) works best when it plays it straight and works least when obvious satire, more befitting of a Star Wars film, rears its ugly head.
One scene, for example, has Thade violently grab Davidson, lie him across his lap, and open his mouth to search for his soul. It’s a very potent scene, to see Thade, an ape, ask such an empirical question. But, in another sequence, during Davidson’s escape from the city, you have gag after gag that of ape life parodying human life in obvious and condescending ways. Those attempts at easy humor really offset the more serious tone that tugs at the heart of the story.
As for the ending; well, the new movie tries to outdo the surprise ending of the original, and, for some, it may succeed. Personally, I was more shocked by Kris Kristofferson’s screen entrance than anything else.