Making apes of the audience

Tim Burton's remake of Planet of the Apes sacrifices the original's intelligence for cheap summertime thrills.

Allison Felus

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Tim Burton insists his version of Planet of the Apes is not a ‘remake’ of the 1968 original and its sequels, but a ‘reimagining’. Let’s just call it a ‘refrying’ and leave it at that.

The premise remains the same: astronaut Leo Davidson (Mark Wahlberg) crashes on a planet where apes are the superior species, and tries to survive while hatching a plan to get back home. Nasty ape officials – including Tim Roth’s dastardly General Thade – try to stop him, but human rights activist Ari (Helena Bonham Carter) takes pity on his struggle and helps him out.

The biggest deviation from the 1968 version is in tone. The original wore its cynicism like Charlton Heston wore his now-famous loincloth – with a proud, bold swagger. Burton’s version gives off a casual indifference that reveals as little of what’s going on underneath as Wahlberg’s futuristic long underwear.

Part of the reason for the tonal shift is the screenplay. Writers William Broyles Jr, Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal (always distrust a movie written by committee) have mixed their metaphors to such a degree that there is little hope of any positive message getting through. Listening to the apes talk about the humans, it is difficult to tell if their contempt is analogous to racism, ‘speciesism’ or religious bigotry – issues that are not equally interchangeable as garden-variety discrimination. This conflation does a disservice to both the film, and the audience – some of whom have more on their minds than just empty summertime thrills.

Wahlberg’s quest to get back home lacks a sense of urgency. Rather than a frantic bid for survival in a hostile environment, it looks more like he took a wrong turn off the highway and is slightly annoyed because he might be late for a dinner party. But this is less a reflection of Wahlberg’s acting skills than of the film’s lack of direction – after all, Wahlberg convinced us in the Gulf War movie Three Kings of his desperate need to get back to his wife and child, so we know he has the skill to convey strong, primal emotions.

But what’s really missing here is the maniacal outrage Heston gave us in the original. The depravity in the 1968 version gave rise to Heston’s seething fury, which provided a mirror for late-1960s opinions on social injustice. But then, Burton’s version could be just as much a reflection of our times – in the way it doesn’t give a damn about anything except its own narcissism and sense of irony about the past.

Burton squanders Roth and Bonham Carter. Rather than inspiring the kind of work he’s gotten out of Johnny Depp on numerous occasions, he suppresses them under the weight of this theme park ride. The challenge of acting through their make-up and not under it seems to diminish the intelligence they usually bring to their roles – and even their diction is restricted by the mouthpieces they wear to give them that simian look.

Towards the end of the film, Charlton Heston makes a brief appearance as General Thade’s dying father – and it has to be seen to be believed. Of course, his cameo pays homage to his status as father of the Planet of the Apes franchise, but he also delivers a bizarre monologue proclaiming that guns are proof of humans’ superior intelligence. The speech is something of an in joke for all those familiar with Heston’s support of America’s National Rifle Association – but it also seems to be in direct opposition to the liberal humanist views espoused in Heston’s original.

I thought Burton’s involvement with Planet of the Apes would give us a stylish yet intelligent adventure. Instead, it turns out to be an unintentional metaphor for the experience of going to the movies during the summer: human audiences, routinely enslaved by talking monkeys making the ‘artistic’ decisions in Hollywood, are forced to fight for their survival and try to escape to a place where they can live in peace. It truly is a jungle out there.

Planet of the Apes is on general release in the USA, and opens in the UK on Friday 17 August 2001. See the Planet of the Apes website

Read on:

Summer movies:

AI: a film of two halves, by Allison Felus

Pearl Harbor: so bad it’s bad, by Allison Felus

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