If you put a hundred monkeys at a hundred word processors for a
hundred years, would one of them write a screenplay for a Tim Burton
The sun peeks over the horizon with a brilliant flare. Light creeps
over a scorched desert plain. And then, a hairy fist thrusts a rifle
into our view. That hairy fist belongs to a hairy arm, the arm of a
gorilla warrior. All the while, drums thump at the edge of our hearing.
For many, that image defines the Planet of the Apes. Everybody
remembers a bunch of guys walking around in gorilla suits, growling,
with a few British actors hunched over to simulate being chimps and
orangutans, pretending the work was not beneath them. In retrospect,
you can’t escape that the whole concept was kind of cheesy. Give Tim
Burton credit for battling to get away from that. Still, they’re monkeys,
man…talking monkeys. Can they make the box office their conquest in
Instead of the ultimate male Charlton Heston, Burton’s Planet of
the Apes gives us Mark Wahlberg as Captain Leo Davidson. He works
on Project Oberon, stationed in space training genetically enhanced
chimpanzees to pilot probes into stellar phenomena. But he’s torn; as
much as Leo likes his prized chimp pupil Pericles, he wishes he were
the one flying the probes. Fate takes a hand in the form of a cosmic
storm that rips Pericles out of contact. Going against his superiors’
wishes, Leo hijacks a probe to follow Pericles. Meanwhile, the crew
of the Oberon picks up bizarre distress calls coming from …themselves.
Of course, Captain Davidson gets ripped through time and space to crash
on a planet that at first looks suspiciously like Dagobah. Instead of
hanging with a puppet, however, he hooks up with a group of humans fleeing
the savage (but nicely uniformed) apes of this world. From this moment
on, Burton’s unique vision takes hold. You’ve seen the commercials and
already noticed that these apes do move far more like apes than in any
of the previous incarnations. But what Burton and various screenwriters
have also brought is apes that act like apes. They leap and pounce
upon these running humans. For the first time in years, the thought
of intelligent apes attacking looks frightening. And then they speak.
A confused Davidson, lying on the ground, accidentally touches the
booted foot of Attar, a prominent gorilla played by Michael Clarke Duncan.
The ape looks down and sneers “get your hands off me, you damned dirty
human.” Yes, Burton’s Planet of the Apes isn’t so much a remake
as a re-thinking of the concept, and that re-thinking includes the hip
ironic edge that today’s audiences demand. Even though we want to believe
in this world, the filmmakers have to remind us that it is, after all,
only a movie, and that we’ve sort of seen it before. By the time Charlton
Heston makes his inevitable cameo, it’s hard to know if we should take
it seriously or not. Most will vote for the not.
At times, it starts to feel like The Flintstones. Thankfully,
the film avoids making bad puns in the service of its humor, but still,
the “ape city” has a closed-in, Disneyland feel to it, and many of the
scenes there have visual jokes to remind us of our own culture and vanities.
Kids play a ragged basketball. An old chimpanzee takes off his toupee
for the night. And, in a culture with no recognizable technology and
certainly no electricity, a teen ape gang hangs out smoking and listening
to techno. Never mind that escaping human servants seem to have this
strange knack for running into such places when they should be trying
to get away unseen.
Take heart, at least, that the humans here do avoid having the usual
post-apocalyptic mystical prophecies. They are a people without hope,
being hunted down into extinction by the villainous Thade (Tim Roth).
If they have an organization, it never gets made explicit. The de facto
leader seems to be Daena (Estella Warren), but that may be only because
she has the most screen time. They look to Davidson to do something,
anything, to strike a blow for equality with the apes, not because they
have long awaited this chosen one, but because he’s there. Only Davidson
can fight, because it never occurs to him that he can’t. If only Wahlberg
had been more magnetic.
Burton has long had a fascination for tweaking the image of the hero.
In Apes, Davidson recognizes that things are out of whack, but
the impending genocide of the planet’s humans really doesn’t concern
him as much as finding a way home. As a result, Wahlberg makes a big
void in the center of the movie. The truly noble characters end up being
two apes, the lovely chimpanzee Ari (Helena Bonham Carter, disturbingly
attractive) and disgraced silverback Krull (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa). They
strike against the norm of their society, and in Krull’s case, fight
against their long-held distaste for humans to do what is right.
All the apes, in fact, end up being far more vivid than the humans.
As the slave trader/con ape Limbo, Paul Giamatti provides purposeful
comic relief that doesn’t distract from the action. Roth makes a terrifying
chimp, and of course, a great villain. The gorillas all blend into one,
though, even with the towering Duncan as their leader. Tagawa does strike
a graceful note as the one gorilla not mindlessly part of the crowd,
but he seems the least comfortable in a gorilla suit. On him, it looks
like a big prosthetic, though he still manages to do some beautiful
sword-work within it.
Planet of the Apes has a more coherent story than usual for
this summer, though you still shouldn’t think too hard about its plot
twists (in a world with no communications systems, how do all the tribes
of humans find out about the man who defies the apes? Shut up and have
another Red Vine). It’s goofy, but it has moments of good thrills.
Reviewed: Kiss of the
Dragon by Derek McCaw
(Updated 7-6-01, 5:43 PM PST) Jet
Li can kill a man with just his thumb, but chopsticks are more civilized.
Dr. Dolittle 2
by Derek McCaw (Updated 6-25-01, 5:18
Talkin' to the fuzzy bear. If ya know what I mean.
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