Every so often, you love something really friggin’ stupid as a kid. For me, one of those things just so happened to be this film. Tim Burton’s 2001 remake of Planet of the Apes captured my imagination, and I watched it over and over. Well today, it certainly captured me, in that it held me hostage. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so silly as I did just now as I re-watched this embarrassing attempt to cash in on such an amazing film, which began a string of Tim Burton remakes that just got worse, and worse, and worse. Seriously, I happen to like Tim Burton when he decides to do something original that actually suits his style, but I’m hard pressed to know what he’s thinking whenever he re-conceives something.
This version begins much like the original did, except with all of the good storytelling taken out. Captain Leo Davidson (Mark Wahlberg) has spent a couple years in space training chimps to operate space pods (get it? because this movie is about apes). When one of his monkey test subjects gets lost in a mysterious space storm, Davidson goes to investigate and ends up getting sucked in, crashing on a mysterious planet. On this world, apes have taken over society…blah blah blah…keep the humans as slaves…yaddy yaddy yadda….and Davidson tries to escape with the help of a couple sympathetic ape companions, and a few human prisoners. In his way is the absolutely insane general Thade (Tim Roth), and his army, who are determined to get them back to their rightful place.
Before I bash this movie’s face in, I want to pay it the one major complement it deserves. The prosthetic ape make-up by Rick Backer is absolutely amazing. Not only do all of the actors in question, including Roth, Michael Clarke Duncan, Paul Giamatti, and Helena Bonham Carter all completely transform themselves leaving not a trace of their original faces in tact, but also, this incredible make-up work fuels some really physically committed performances. These actors clearly studied up on how these animals move and interact with each other, because they absolutely nail it. The apes in this version are much more animalistic and aggressive in this version, which while definitely hurting the point of the story as a whole, is a somewhat welcome change, at least on a visceral level.
On almost every level, this is a completely inane attempt to create a generic blockbuster out of something that was never intended to be such a thing. What was once a story brimming with character and social commentary before has now been turned into a silly chase movie. This screenplay almost never functions. The plot is barren and completely predicable. It’s your typical series of action sequences, with occasional pauses to babble on about nonsense, only to go back to plain action. Dialogue is beyond terrible, with exposition so completely obvious that it’s laughable. Example, at one point, Roth looks at Duncan and grimaces something to the effect of “I trust you…we are not just soldiers..we are friends!.” None of these people or apes are actual characters. They have one defining trait, and that serves a basic function in the plot, that’s it, none of them serve any greater purpose.
The performances are almost universally terrible, even by the people I just complemented for their physical work. I have come to absolutely love Mark Wahlberg over the years for his manic wit and endless charisma, but none of that is here. He’s a completely vanilla hero who exists only to have things explained to him by the other characters, and look angrily at things. All of the Ape characters are completely over preformed. While the newfound physicality is a solid change, what was so brilliant about the original was how subtle the apes were as people. Not so here. Burton makes these poor actors, all of whom are incredibly talented, hoot, holler, and chant like hillbillies. It comes off as flat out idiotic, particularly in Roth’s case, which is a shame because not only is Roth an extremely underrated actor, but he’s really trying here.
Burton’s direction here is flat as a 2 day old Denny’s pancake. If any movie needed his sense of outlandish production design (to a certain extent) it was this one. However, Burton seems more concerned with filming as much sand, and dirt as possible, which is pretty much the go-to palate for directors who are too lazy to actually visually conceptualize their movie. All of the action is lame brained and weightless. It’s watching a bunch of people jump around, yell, and smack each other around. The sense of consequence that was so prevalent in the original is completely removed here. This is especially evident in the climax, a generic “let’s all run at each other and hit each other” fight that wreaks of eighty million other movies.
Planet of the Apes is an utter failure. It removes all of the elements that made the original so fascinating, and replaces them with generic pieces of the average summer blockbuster puzzle. The performances are either far too understated, or over-the-top, and it’s never even remotely exciting enough to justify it’s nearly two hour length. Oh, and that ending, oh my goodness, I have never seen anything so completely dumb in all of my years watching movies. It’s no wonder this movie killed the franchise for a decade. Thank god for Caesar.