Planet of the Apes (2001) movie review: monkey business

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What happens when you give $100 million to a geeky fanboy? You get a $100 million homage to a cult classic SF flick beloved by geeky fanboys.

Clearly, though, Tim Burton is no ordinary geeky fanboy, having taken such diverse figures as Batman and cheese-filmmaker Ed Wood — characters much loved among fannish types — and given them a whole new spin, exploring the dark, psychosexual underpinnings of their subliminal selves. And always, the pathos of the outsider (a theme geeky fanboys and girls can appreciate) seemed to obsess him, from the lonely, misunderstood Edward Scissorhands to the tormented Bruce Wayne to Ichabod Crane, Man of Reason among the superstitious.

So, a “reimagining,” as Burton has been calling it, of Planet of the Apes would surely be ripe for Burton’s brand of psychological autopsy. A human man, alone among hostile, intelligent apes, unable to relate to the uncivilized, subjugated homo sapiens he encounters… Bring on the angst, the hero’s twisted self-torture, all the stuff that makes you wonder what happened to the director as a child!

But don’t hold your breath waiting for it here.

Oh, the film looks incredible. Rick Baker’s ape makeup is astounding: the actors under all that latex can still use their faces to act, smirking, quirking eyebrows, and so on — it’s really easy to forget that these are not intelligent, speaking primates up on the screen. Tim Roth (The Legend of 1900) as the evil chimp general and Michael Clarke Duncan (Cats & Dogs, The Whole Nine Yards) as his lieutenant are terrific, Roth in particular oozing malevolence even through all that makeup. (Helena Bonham Carter [Fight Club, The Wings of the Dove] is less compelling as a rebellious chimp sympathetic to the humans’ cause. That’s not really her fault; bad guys are always more interesting onscreen.) And the apes have a richer culture this time around, too… or richer-looking, at least, the soldiers sporting menacing armor decorated with meaningful symbols, ape houses and clothing demonstrating their appreciation for beautiful design. They have music and an economy and a seemingly viable society. And that’s really cool.

But that’s just window dressing. The film is pretty and all, but it feels like an episode of Mark Wahlberg in the 25th Century, or whenever. As astronaut Leo Davidson, hurdled from his home in the early 21st century (thanks to, it must be said, his own macho stupidity) into the future, to a planet run by apes, Wahlberg (The Perfect Storm, Three Kings) feels a tad unsupported by the story (and the director) — he’s a capable actor, but his muted onscreen personality isn’t the type that can get away with becoming a heroic figure without some more help from the manufacturers of his tale. His rallying of the human troops for the big battle between ape and human simply isn’t believable, no matter how often leather-bikini-clad babe Daena (Estella Warren: Driven) insists her people will follow him. If Wahlberg can play the leader type, we’ve yet to see him do it.

Written by William Broyles Jr (Cast Away, Apollo 13) and Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal (both of whom wrote Mighty Joe Young and Mercury Rising), this new script based on Pierre Boulle’s novel is less overtly socially satirical that the original — though it tosses some bones to the concept of giving humans a taste of their exploitative medicine — and more interested in nodding fondly back at the 1968 film, putting classic lines of dialogue from the original to humorous use. (And it’s almost impossible to avoid doing so here: “A planet where Mark Wahlberg evolved from Charlton Heston?”) Heston gets a fun cameo, too.

Ultra purists, of course, will probably wish that Burton had kept his damn dirty paws off a classic… but that’s usually the case with remakes. Anyone looking for a good, fun popcorn movie in which monkeys get their butts kicked will get precisely what they expect. But Burton fanatics (like me) will wonder where the hell Burton was in all of this — except for the absolutely gorgeous production design, it doesn’t feel like a Burton movie at all.

Oh, and the ending? Hilarious. But it makes no logical sense at all.

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