Whether you want to approach Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes as a remake of the classic 1968 film or as a second adaptation of Pierre Boulle’s 1963 French novel, you cannot escape the fact that Burton’s film drains the story of speculative interest and social commentary in favour of spectacle and amusement. Judged on its own, the film is a flat summer blockbuster with appealing production design but lifeless storytelling that is equally predictable and disordered. In other words, Planet of the Apes fits in comfortably amongst Burton’s later works.
Although 2001’s Planet of the Apes includes several nods to the 1968 classic—mostly humorous inversions of the original, such as having a gorilla shout “You damn, dirty human!” or having Charlton Heston play an elderly ape—it can only be considered a very loose remake. The events are largely different other than some broad parallels: like Heston’s Taylor, Mark Wahlberg’s Captain Leo Davidson crash-lands on a strange planet and is soon captured by a troop of human-hunting apes. Imprisoned, he tries to come to grips with this upside-down world in which apes rule humans.
One of the main problems with Burton’s Planet of the Apes, however, is that the human-ape inversion is softened. In the 1968 version, the shock is that the apes are pretty much human, and the humans are pretty much apes. In Burton’s version, the apes are still too ape-like, the humans too human. Burton’s apes, in impressive makeup, leap about, stoop when they walk and run, snort frequently, and paw things. The ape city is impressively designed, but it looks too much like a giant treehouse. As soon as humans other than Leo start talking, we see that Burton and company have largely missed the point.
Burton’s planet plays like a fantasy world, and the underlying problem with it becomes a matter of the distribution of power. Apes oppress humans; both should be equal. In the original movie, Heston’s Taylor famously cries out, “It’s a madhouse, a madhouse!” because things are so similar with one important, nightmarish difference. Humans are less than apes, lower on the evolutionary ladder. They do not speak or fully think. Zira and Cornelius deplore the cruel treatment of humans, and suggest their common ancestry, but not their full equality. Burton’s Planet of the Apes is a wonderfully designed world that constructs a fantasy of oppression. The 1968 classic confronts epistemological shock.
Interested less in the intellectual possibilities of an ape world and more in the look and feel, it’s no surprise that Burton’s film quickly devolves into standard Hollywood epic form. Wahlberg’s Leo is the reluctant hero who must deliver the oppressed people. He says the usual mush about people needing to stand up, and vaguely recites episodes of resistance throughout history to inspire a people who obviously have no sense of that history. Motivations are personalized. For example, the snarling, spasming villain, General Thade (Tim Roth), doesn’t just hate humans, he’s also revengeful of Ari’s (Helena Bonham Carter’s) unrequited love. But even this by-the-numbers plot becomes muddled. After a second viewing, I’m still unsure why Leo and the runaways are making for Calima (the sacred site of the apes) and what Leo’s tracking device is meant to be locating. The only thing that’s clear (in retrospect) is that the writers’ need everyone to converge at the ruins of the spaceship for the first of the two big twists.
The biting edge of the 1968 film is all gone. Sure, some comments about humankind’s mistreatment of apes on earth is thrown in. Religion, legend, and myth are at turns called or suggested to be mere metaphor, hoaxes concealing truth, and, lastly, the actual version of events. There are parallels to historical slavery, but they’re mostly for Paul Giamatti’s slaver Limbo to milk some jokes, apart from one blatant and incongruous moment where a crying human child is torn from her parents to become a “pet” for an ape family. Like too many modern blockbusters, inconsistent social commentary is thrown in to suggest depth of theme and relevance, just as dramatic moments are distributed to suggest depth of feeling. Wahlberg racing to save a defiant boy who is stuck in the reigns of his fallen horse looks lazily thrown in to add some suspense, suggest Leo’s latent heroism, and wring our hearts. Seen in contrast to Heston’s deeply cynical Taylor, it looks grossly manipulative.
As the film nears its underwhelming first twist and climactic battle, it is clear that Burton and company viewed Planet of the Apes as merely rich material for a movie with some cool costumes, neat environments, the usual heroics, and a big wowing twist (which could be exploited for a sequel if need be). Like the more recent Alice, it’s a vehicle for standard action adventure with Burtonized visuals. Although the film overly fetishizes its design, most notably in the opening credits sequence that captures Thade’s armour in slow detail, I have to admit that the early 2000s blend of models, makeup, and digital imagery strikes a nice balance of material stateliness and digital freedom in contrast to the ugly, cloudy, messy visuals of Alice.
I might sound overly harsh towards the film, but this is mostly because I enjoy and admire the 1968 classic so much. Seen alone (if that’s even possible), Burton’s Planet of the Apes is an okay blockbuster, displaying the usual high-quality production values mixed with poor storytelling. Seeing it alongside the 1968 classic, though, throws into relief the 2001 film’s individual missteps as well as the larger pattern of Burton’s blockbuster approach.
One last word on the big twist at the end. I haven’t read the original novel, but from what I understand, the ending resembles the novel’s, expect that Wahlberg lands in Washington and not Paris. The bizarro moment doesn’t entirely make sense, but it does satisfy in a superficial way, and clearly functions as a franchise hook for a second installment. It doesn’t deserve to bear the brunt of the film’s poor reception and legacy or be the emblem of its commercial nature; the rest of the film does enough to establish that.
4 out of 10
Planet of the Apes (2001, USA)
Directed by Tim Burton; screenplay by Lawrence Konner & Mark Rosenthal and William Broyles Jr., based on the novel by Pierre Boulle; starring Mark Wahlberg, Tim Roth, Helena Bonham Carter, Michael Clarke Duncan, Paul Giamatti, Estella Warren, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, and Kris Kristofferson.