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Planet of the Apes Review

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by Chris McEneany Mar 17, 2007

    Planet of the Apes Review
    The funny thing about reviewing DVDs is that just when you think you've managed to avoid having to cover a certain film - one that, perhaps, you either really didn't want to waste your time with, or felt it would just be too much effort to dissect in the long run - a new format comes along and bingo! you've gone and copped for it, afterall! Such is the case with this title, Tim Burton's infamously misguided re-imagining of the classic sci-fi movie Planet Of The Apes. Here was a film that I truly couldn't wait for during its much-ballyhooed pre-release marketing blitz. A sucker for the hype machine, I had already adorned my house with posters and standees and action figures and was playing Danny Elfman's score for the new film over and over in feverish anticipation of a remake that, for once, I actually thought might try something different yet still retain that all-important respect for the original. I mean, come on, this was Tim Burton pulling the strings here ... you wouldn't think he was about to monkey around with such an acclaimed cult item, would you?

    To say that I was disappointed is obviously a huge understatement.

    The crazy notion is that I still enjoyed the film on its admittedly poor, low-rent level of juvenile excitement. I just felt, well, confused as to why the film had gone in the narratively threadbare direction that it did and how a filmmaker as talented as Burton could allow such an imaginative concept to flat-line into nothing more intellectual than a series of deflating set-pieces, some inept simian-slapstick and only a smattering of pure ape ASBO-mentality. The material was so rich with texture, metaphor and character that it beggars belief that the film ended up bogged-down in its own set-heavy, but woefully un-dramatic race against time scenario. I'm all in favour of a rip-roaring adventure, but this is a story that offers so much more than merely stereotyped characters running about from contrivance to cliché, with about as much personality as a lump of discarded latex. But, in a break from the traditional lambasting that this film normally receives at the hands of critics and reviewers who have touched unlucky (like me), I am going to attempt to extol its virtues and not just knee-jerk my way through the more obvious write-up that my fingers are itching to produce.

    Distancing itself from Charlton Heston's anti-social and cynical spaceman (which, if you think about it, is perfect characterisation for the role of the original's Taylor, though a totally ludicrous selection of interstellar material for any space program to have undertaken) Burton's remake sees Mark Wahlberg's chimp-loving, but decidedly wooden future astronaut courageously following his simian test-pilot into an electromagnetic void and arriving on a planet ruled by apes. With nothing to match Taylor's cerebral and moralistic quest to “find something better than Man,” Wahlberg's Leo Davidson isn't so much a proper, rounded character as he is a simple plot-accelerator. In fact, he is merely a physical device with which to move the story along, acting as little more than a piece of narrative string to link the various set-pieces and revelations together - a catalyst with a monotone voice, in other words. Once he has crash-landed on the strange new world he encounters, in absolutely breakneck speed, a tribe of straggly, dumbed-down savages, a human-snatching swarm of ape hunter-gatherers and an intricately-designed monkey city and, quicker than you can brand a leggy blonde slave-girl, he has positioned himself acutely in the middle of a veritable class war between peace-loving intellectual apes and the war-hungry oppressive junta of the ruling military body. In strict homage to the original, Davidson is taken under the wing of Ari, who is literally a human rights campaigner, played by Helena Bonham Carter, and consequently revealed as a terrible threat to mad monkey General Thade's iron-pawed domination of the warped society, his arrival signifying too many horrific possibilities for rebellion and the complete overhauling of ape history. Something Thade simply cannot allow.

    A major difference in the screenplay from William Broyles Jnr, Lawrence Konner and Mark D. Rosenthal is that the human slaves are no longer mute. Rather they are quite adept at fighting and even inveigling themselves into the heart of ape culture. Well, by that, I mean they are kept as pets, playthings or menial servants, but the slight twist on the original sees that their existence in the grip of their ape masters is not nearly as barbaric as in the lobotomy-happy original. The concept here being that the cleverest amongst them could actually gain themselves quite a cushy number if they really thought about it and, well, put up with their masters' fleas. But, in the usual context of the summer blockbuster - that perennial need to have a rollercoaster-like drive at the heart of the film to cajole the audience into going along with its nonsense for a couple of hours - Davidson manages to help extricate a handful of disparate humans - including Kris Kristofferson's lantern-jawed Karubi and swimmer-turned-model Estelle Warren's ditzy warrior-woman Daena - and a gaggle of slightly reluctant apes (annoying Paul Giamatti's slave-trading Orang-utan, Limbo, sadly in tow, as well) and, together, they go on a rather whistle-stop odyssey of discovery, shock and enlightenment. Oh, and cause a massive battle between Man and primate beside an ancient edifice that actually means more to the spaceman than it does to the apes and, thus, alter the course of simian and human history forever more.

    Whilst the original film packed in heady, brow-beating sci-fi ideas and a lot of philosophical and intellectual observations about society - we'll forget about the cartoonic sequels that just adhered to the law of diminishing returns and cheapo monkey/mutant melees - Burton's Take 2 is content to brush only very lightly over the ripe comments that can be made about such a topsy-turvy civilisation, eager to enforce the colourful romp of the scenario and up the action ante. Heston didn't really battle the gorillas in his twisted evolutionary-foray, merely argued with them and then, rather grumpily, fled into the Forbidden Zone. The new film sets up a clear villain in Tim Roth's ambitiously nasty Thade, and it is here that Planet Of The Apes 2001-style finally plays a wining hand. Roth is superb as the belligerent, whisker-twitching doom-mongering warrior-chimp. He takes the part and infuses it with a Shakespearean penchant for posturing and snarly scene-chewing, dominating the film with an eerily intense performance from behind the mask. His aggressive teasing of Leo - attempting to locate the so-called soul that Ari believes lurks within all Men by wrenching his jaws apart and peering down his throat - and his frenzied temper-tantrums present him as wildly unpredictable and a lot more three-dimensional that his human counterparts. His aggrieved wooing of Ari and the strange respect he shows his father (Heston in a truly inspired mask-bound cameo) seem to only barely conceal the real threat that his glowering dictator poses to the status quo. It is the only performance in the movie that actually has any power to it, and Thade's level of savagery and intimidation is something that lingers in the memory long after you have mourned the ineptitude of the script that gave him life.

    By contrast, the other ape-actors don't come over anywhere near as strongly. The massively-built Michael Clarke Duncan might have seemed like an awesome choice for gorilla leader Attar, but his towering brute stature is tempered by a much less volatile nature than his commander-in-chief. Thus, when he goes into battle, we are far less in awe of him despite his ferocious appearance and impressive size. Even Mortal Kombat's Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa's vengeance-driven Silverback, Krull - a former soldier turned slave - loses the visceral edge after a couple of scenes. In fact, the gorillas, en masse, seem to have less of a fright-factor than they did in the original film, or even the TV series, come to think of it - General Urko still gives me the creeps - and this may be something to do with the authenticity of the makeup. John Chambers' Academy Award-winning masks for the 1968 film stand the test of time and will always look impressive, but they lack the real texture and naturalness of expression that Rick Baker's more advanced designs can achieve. But this realism can actually end up softening the monstrousness of the apes and, of course, the watery-eye effect only makes them ultimately much more sympathetic - merely animals as opposed to demons. Schaffner's apes were much more uniform in appearance, yet somehow managed to maintain an aura of hybrid-horror - part man, part ape, part alien - that Baker's seem to lack in the strive to appear more convincing. Mind you, it is still a pretty terrifying sight when you see Attar's lips peel back to reveal those vicious jaws when he roars in rage. And, as well as Linda Harrison, who played Taylor's mate Nova in the original and here, again, essays an unfortunate human captive, Rick Baker, himself, even pops up for a little irresistible cameo. Unlike Harrison, however, he is happily masquerading behind one of his own makeup designs, as an ape enjoying some sort of simian bong.

    So, whilst Baker's ape designs are spectacular, as we would only expect from modern techniques under his expert, and Oscar-winning hands, it is also somewhat fitting to realise that he actually cut his makeup-crafting teeth on making monkey-masks for the likes of John Landis' Schlock and, of course, Dino De Laurentiis' 70's remake of King Kong (see separate review). The differing species of ape, from the gangly, copper-hued orang-utans to the big, hulking gorillas built like quarterbacks, the creature designs are superlative in their flexibility, realism and ability to convey emotion. But the standout work is that constructed upon the face and body of Tim Roth's Thade. Although a chimpanzee, he manages to reproduce the truly savage nature of the species that man likes to call his closest relative. Totally unrecognisable beneath the mound of prosthetics and painstakingly adhered hair, the image of Thade is unrepentantly frightening and aggressive, far more so than the rather cuddly gorillas of Attar and his more distinguished-looking nemesis, Krull. It is also nice to see the stalwart British workaholic David (The Omen, Time Bandits)Warner languishing behind the latex as the liberal-minded ape, Sandor.

    Burton manages to create some clever stunt and effects work that sees the apes able to leap huge distances - whether that would be feasible or not - and race along the dirt at galloping-horse velocities, and the image conjured up of these fang-and-fur warriors closing in for the kill is pretty frightening indeed. The final battle is, ultimately, a letdown but the build-up to it is impressively moody and tense, with the simian forces amassing across the desert on horseback and bedecked in snail-shell (or are they cockleshell?) helmets and pseudo-Samurai armour. The weapons they wield are pretty nasty looking, too. When I was a kid I stumbled onto one of the original Planet Of The Apes comics - large-format and printed in black and white - that featured a simply awesome double-page spread of a massive conflict between an ape army and an equally savage battalion of humans. It was the type of image that you just longed to see in full colour and splashed across the big screen, but doubted you ever would. Well, I must give some credit to Burton and his crew for, at least, attempting to bring something like it to roaring life, even if the end result is still a little lacklustre. Background figures amidst the skirmish are quite pathetically enacting their barely choreographed hack and slashery, and the big face-off between two mighty gorillas that we had been looking forward to is all over before you know it.

    But the film consistently scores with its production design. The sets are fairly interesting, although the matte-painted backdrops don't always hang so well with the foreground details, at times harking back to the primitive joins in the scenery of the sci-fi flicks of the fifties, in that figures traversing the vast landscapes just don't appear all that genuine to me. But kudos must go to the great Ape City that, although studio-bound, feels vast and winding and complex, and the jungle sets are suitably lush and swathed in preternatural shadow. The Forbidden Zone this time around can be disappointing. Yes, I know that the production actually went to the same locations as in the original - the vast deserts of Lake Powell on the border of Utah - but Heston's version saw the sands gleaming almost white under the harsh sun, and the endless plateaus arrayed in practically supernatural infinity beneath a pure blue sky. In 1968 their appearance seemed utterly bizarre and alien. Nothing seen in Burton's version - even the lava fields that they lensed in Hawaii - matches the frightening beauty of the cliff-edges and the spooky electrical storm illuminating the heavens above that Taylor and his buddies gawped at. But the ancient remains of the ape holy land of Calima spiking jadedly out of the ground offer a startlingly strange image. The interiors of the religious relic, itself, (I'm not going to say what the thing really is in case there are still people out there who haven't seen the film) are quite nicely done, too. What was once sparse and bland when we first saw it having been transformed into a striking, sand-filled derelict of haunting desolation and shocking familiarity. Of course, nothing in this film will supply anything remotely near the shock-value of the original's iconic reveal. But then, if we are honest with ourselves, it couldn't, could it? Perhaps the biggest mistake that the writers of this version made is that they actually tried to produce their own idea of a shock climax and, in struggling to come up with something effective, they threw caution and coherence to the wind ... and created nothing more than a travesty.

    Without a doubt, this film has one of the worst endings that I have ever seen. But I won't labour the point any further than to say that even as a hook for a potential sequel it feels totally desperate and annoyingly trite.

    Danny Elfman, such a glorious regular to Tim Burton's team, supplies a terrific percussion-based score that goes off in a completely different direction from Jerry Goldsmith's boldly experimental original. His main theme is pounding and insistent and his action cues leave the likes of his vogue for whimsical and sugary fantasy (Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas, The Corpse Bride etc) way behind. It was after this film that he suddenly received calls for duties on Spider-Man 1 & 2 and The Hulk. I still prefer Goldsmith's score, though. The use of the primitive kulka and an assortment of upturned pots and pans have, so far, been the most effective musical way to interpret the cacophony of ape-chatter. But Elfman still does a fine job of adding atmosphere and excitement to the story.

    But I really can't let the film off the hook that easily, can I? Woefully miscast and populated with Z-graders, banal child stars, rogue has-beens who really should know better and, of all things, synchronised swimmers (for God's sake!), the acting talent is completely missing. Mark Wahlberg, who I actually like in some films, is simply terrible in this and makes for a severely unappealing hero who doesn't warrant either our sympathies or our support. His performance is totally wooden and he seems to sleepwalk through the whole thing. Helena Bonham Carter tries but can't convince as the ethical chimp do-gooder Ari - and having a makeup design that just evokes Michael Jackson doesn't help matters. Kris Kristofferson is utterly squandered as the luckless and bedraggled forest-man who winds up fighting for mankind, and the pouting cutie Estelle Warren may have absolutely gorgeous legs but she is truly abysmal as an actress, laying waste to any sense of threat or atmosphere during any scene that she is in. And don't get me started on that walking drek-fest of a child-performer that is Luke Eberl, as the formulaic warrior-boy Birn. Jeez, for a big blockbuster movie, some of the painting-by-numbers casting and performances that take place within it are simply unforgivable and, even had the screenplay actually been up to the task of taking Schaffner's classic into the new millennium, would doubtlessly still have sunk it.

    Naturally, I won't discuss the film's two pivotal twists except to say that Broyles', Konner's and Rosenthal's attempts to recapture the iconic sucker-punch that the original delivered are almost intriguing in the first instance, and then totally preposterous and nonsensical in the second. In fact, come the end of the film, the entire premise comes undone with shoddy revelations that render the plot, its timeline and its relative coherence completely redundant. I can still hear the howls of laughter from the cinema audience I saw the film with ringing in my ears, still feel the tangibly incredulous dismay that replaced their boredom. Anyone recall the pathetic attempts 20th Century Fox made with their initial 2-disc SD version of the film to help explain the shock ending - that little insert that handily explained the chronology of the story's events and kind of tipped us off how things could have ended up? I've got to admit that I do like the nifty Ape-raham Lincoln gag, though! And, when all said and done, Pierre Boulle's original (and surprisingly boring) novel, Monkey Planet, features exactly the same conceit, as does the ill-fated cartoon series from the 70's, Return To The Planet Of The Apes in that the simian race had mastered technology all by itself.

    So, Burton's Planet Of The Apes can still be strangely entertaining in an easily-pleased Saturday morning type of way. Disposable when it should have been thought-provoking and revelatory, and frenetic when it should have taken the time to scramble our assumptions and play havoc with our evolutionary mindset, this interpretation still proves to be a frustrating and, ultimately, a shallow one. But there is always the Machiavellian man-mashing mania of Thade's arrogant chimp to fall back on when the humans start to foul things up. He, alone, is worth watching.