Planet of the Apes (United States, 2001)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

This remake of the 1968 film, Planet of the Apes, has been on the drawing board for a long time. When it was first mentioned as a serious project (rather than just the figment of Apes fans' imaginations), the two prominent names attached to it were director James Cameron (pre-Titanic) and Arnold Schwarzenegger. For a while, Cameron appeared serious about making the film (if not as the director, then as a producer), but, along came Titanic and a flood of Oscars, and Planet of the Apes was placed so far on the back burner that it was, for all intents and purposes, near death and burial. Enter Tim Burton, who came to Planet of the Apes with a new vision and his own ideas of how the franchise could be revived for a '00s audience. Under Burton's stewardship, Planet of the Apes was re-born, and, 33 years after the first version of Pierre Boulle's novel reached screens, the apes are back.

Burton objects to his Planet of the Apes being called a "remake". He prefers the term "re-imagination". Indeed, while there are a few similarities between this film and its predecessor, many of the differences are so sweeping that even those intimately familiar with the 1968 version will discover plenty of new material. Character names are not re-used - there is no Taylor, no Nova, no Zira, no Cornelius, and no Dr. Zaius. Instead, we have the likes of Leo Davidson (Mark Wahlberg), Daena (Estella Warren), Ari (Helena Bonham Carter), Krull (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), and General Thade (Tim Roth). The setting is radically altered - this is not Earth of the future, but another world. Ape society is structured differently, and humans can speak. However, in his attempts to bend the Planet of the Apes mythology to his own vision, Burton has not entirely abandoned the original. The basic plot framework follows a similar path. There are occasional nods to the 1968 version in both dialogue and set design. The story's allegorical nature is still in effect, condemning racism and intolerance, and it's no more subtle than it was three decades ago. And Apes stars Charlton Heston and Linda Harrison both make cameo appearances. (Had Roddy McDowall still been alive, he surely would have also been given a part.)

Planet of the Apes first became a phenomenon when the original movie was released in 1968. That film took in about five times its production cost; its success resulted in four sequels (Beneath the Planet of the Apes, Escape From the Planet of the Apes, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, Battle For the Planet of the Apes), a live-action television series, and a Saturday morning TV cartoon. Over the years, although Apes mania has abated, it has never entirely evaporated - some segments of fandom rival Trekkers for devotion. Burton's resurrection of the franchise is aimed not only at those who were around for the original series, but at the new generation of film-goers who may be unfamiliar with the days when Roddy McDowall and Planet of the Apes were synonymous.

For the movie's first half hour, Planet of the Apes looks like it might be the much-needed antidote to the plague of disappointing action/adventure films that have dotted the 2001 summer release schedule. For roughly 60 minutes, the movie is an exercise in intensity and frantic pacing (sometimes bordering on the chaotic). There is a lull during the protracted mid-section, then things gear up for the big finale. And that's where Burton and his screenwriters blow it. Big time. The ending is a series of at least four bad decisions that begin with a dissatisfying, anti-climactic resolution to the central conflict and end with a completely illogical "shock" sequence. In between, there's even a deus ex machina intervention.

Following a brief prologue on a solar system-based space station in the year 2029, Planet of the Apes shifts into high gear as astronaut Leo Davidson's one-man space pod is sucked into a time/space vortex and spit out somewhere far in the future in another part of the universe. There, he crash-lands on a planet where the apes are the dominant species and humans are slaves. He is promptly captured by raiding party led by the cruel, human-hating General Thade and his second in command, Attar (Michael Clarke Duncan), and along with other slaves, including the woman Daena (Estella Warren) and her father, Karubi (Kris Kristofferson), he is sold to the slave trader, Limbo (Paul Giamatti). Limbo in turn sells these three to Ari (Helena Bonham-Carter), the daughter of an influential senator and a "human lover". With her help and the help of the former leader of the military, Krull (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), Leo heads out on a journey for the "Forbidden Zone", where he believes he will find answers and perhaps salvation.

In terms of look, pace, and tone, this is a much different film than the 1968 version. The allegorical elements are still present, but Burton has used the quantum leaps in technology to make this Planet of the Apes a far more alien environment. The director's strengths, from Edward Scissorhands to Batman to Sleepy Hollow, have always been his visual sense and his ability to generate a powerful sense of atmosphere, and those aptitudes are much in evidence throughout this movie. The Ape City, with its organic feel, is a marvelous morsel of eye candy. The action sequences are not masterfully executed, but they generate some tension.

Without going into specifics, it's hard to describe how badly wrong Planet of the Apes goes at the end. Suffice it to say that the movie isn't satisfied with shooting itself in the foot one time. The epic battle between the slave humans and master apes, which has the potential to be a Braveheart/Gladiator-type conflict (at least, that seems to be what the filmmakers are aiming for) starts out well, but ends with a whimper that is unlikely to satisfy more than a handful of undemanding viewers. Similarly, the fate of the chief villain is left muddled (presumably so he can be around for a sequel). Then there's the coda, which attempts to recapture the shock sensation/"Twilight Zone" feeling of the ending of the 1968 version. For a split second, this twist seems wickedly clever and ironic, but a moment's thought reveals it to be a cheat that makes no sense in the context of the movie. It is there simply to surprise viewers (and to pave the way for the aforementioned sequel). Such a careless and openly manipulative plot stunt rarely sits well with me, and, in this case, it made me angry.

Rick Baker's makeup is superlative, improving upon the original without obliterating its memory. No one will for a moment think of the actors as people in monkey suits, even though that's what the apes are. Mark Wahlberg gets the easy job, and he has no trouble acting equal parts stoic and heroic. Likewise, Estella Warren wears less, not more, and does an adequate job appearing beautiful and wild (even though she talks, she doesn't have much to say). As the genocidal General Thade, Tim Roth is truly frightening, although his explosive performance is more reptilian than simian. Roth hasn't been this vicious since Rob Roy. Helena Bonham Carter brings a little sex appeal to her chimpanzee character, and there are underplayed elements of a love triangle featuring Ari, Daena, and Leo. The supporting performances are all solid, with Charlton Heston having a brief (but important) single-scene appearance buried under layers of Baker's latex.

Perhaps the film's finest moment occurs early in the proceedings, right after Leo has been captured by the apes. In a wink-and-a-nod reference to the original, as he grasps an ape by the leg, he is kicked away with the following rebuke: "Get your stinking hands off me, you damn dirty human!" If the entire movie had remained on the lofty level occupied by its first act, and avoided the out-of-control spiral characterizing its climax and conclusion, this version of Planet of the Apes could have bettered its predecessor. As it is, however, Burton's film is one more disappointment in a summer of lackluster "event pictures."

Planet of the Apes (United States, 2001)

Run Time: 1:58
U.S. Release Date: 2001-07-27
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1