Planet of the Apes (2001)
d. Tim Burton / 2001 / USA / 119 mins Throughout the nineties Fox made many renewed attempts to make another Apes movie. The project went through numerous writers, directors and actors; James Cameron, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Chris Columbus and Micheal Bay were a few of those attached at various points. Later on, Peter Jackson would be ready to direct a story that saw the apes enter their own renaissance, with Roddy McDowall playing a DaVinci type chimp. McDowall’s death in 1998 tipped the balance for Jackson, making him lose confidence in the project.
In the dawn of the new millennium, the apes would finally rise again onto audiences’ screens with director Tim Burton at the helm. The film would be financially successful (although not enough for Fox to continue with their planned sequel) and although critics were less than favourable, many acknowledged that it was an enjoyable enough film, with impressive effects and a dark tone (that whilst working against its best interests) is loyal to the 1968 original. Obviously I’m not going to suggest this is a great film. Far from it, I’m not even going to argue that this is a mediocre film. What I will say is that it has taken considerable restraint and debate for me not to arrive at the conclusion that Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes is the most inconsequential and ham-fisted film I have ever seen.
It’s difficult to remain passive and objective when a film treats its own audience and subject matter with so much disregard. Any social relevance and political meaning has been stripped clean, leaving nothing but a stoically Hollywood script at its most tedious. Let’s review the events… Mark Wahlberg plays Captain Leo Davidson, an astronaut who (in an attempted rescue of his missing chimpanzee chum, Pericles) crash lands on a mysterious planet run by apes. Tim Burton’s admitted fear of apes seems to inform the film’s tone, as this strange society oppresses and enslaves humans to a degree that may have made the original’s Dr. Zaius flinch. There is nothing to learn from this depiction of “the other”, at no point does Davidson need to consider his own species’ attitudes of violence. No, luckily for the limited abilities of Wahlberg, his duties rely on grouping together the human tribes and fighting the army of the evil General Thade (Tim Roth) whilst appearing as out of breath and bewildered as possible. Luckily, Wahlberg refused to wear a loincloth whilst filming (as Heston did in the original) as he didn’t want to remind viewers of his days modelling Calvin Klein. Whilst Charlton Heston’s enslaved gravitas was a wonderful play with his epic screen image, the fact that we don’t have to view Wahlberg semi-naked, huffing and puffing through his wooden performance can only be viewed as a blessing.
Our one reminder that the apes aren’t intrinsically malevolent beings is Ari, a chimpanzee with a liberal agenda, played by Helena Bonham Carter. Whilst some of the prosthetics are undoubtedly impressive, a decision seems to have been made to make the female apes appear more human and bewilderingly, more attractive due to the odd sexual tension between Leo and Ari. The result is that many of the apes look more like a plastic surgeon’s worst nightmare, with collapsed noses and stretched, pasty and hairless skin. Paul Giamatti gives what is probably the best performance as the corrupt orangutan Limbo but he is constantly battling against an inadequate script, although it’s encouraging to see at least one person attempt to bring a little character to the film.
Even at it’s worst, the original series functioned as a competent sci-fi adventure. The fact that they did so far more successfully than this juggernaut only goes to prove that a film’s quality can not be made up for by a blockbuster budget. In every manner of speaking this is Burton at his worst. The fairytale visage that works so well in Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice and even his lesser films like Sweeny Todd, falls flat, devoid of charm and exists only to make the apes world feel constricted and claustrophobic. Gone are the sweeping vistas of the original; the apes’ culture itself is stagnant and uninteresting. Danny Elfman’s usually brilliant work suffers too, limited and restrained by weak attempts to recapture the grandeur of the memorable, percussive themes of the original.
This visit to the planet of the apes’ greatest downfall is that it is simply not entertaining. I would say that the film serves as a distraction of sorts but the action that comprises a considerable portion of the film is dull and has almost no emotional weight. Few were expecting this “re-imagining” to strike the same chords as its predecessor but the writers and Burton miss even the lowest expectations and are unable to bring the same sense of wonder and excitement to this latest instalment. A wealth of hugely creative talent is on offer but somehow we are left with a film that feels imaginatively barren. The less said of its ending the better – internet debate has attempted to defend and explain its meaning and it’s source (Pierre Boulle’s original novel), but nothing redeems the fact that it comes across as more of a punch-line than a twist. A badly conceived joke that references the first ape film’s iconic ending out of obligation but is incapable of expanding intelligently upon it.