‘Planet of the Apes’ at 20 – Review

Planet of the Apes (2001)
Director: Tim Burton
Screenwriter: William Broyles Jr, Lawrence Konner
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Helena Bonham Carter, Tim Roth, Michael Clarke Duncan, Paul Giamatti, Estella Warren, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, David Warner, Kris Kristofferson, Erick Avari, Charlton Heston 

Various writers and directors at 20th Century Fox had been trying to get a new Planet of the Apes off the ground for over a decade by the time Tim Burton signed on to the project. A sword-and-sandals epic, but with apes, had been mooted, as had a simian Arnold Schwarzenegger actioner. After years of deliberation, in July 2001 Burton’s lavish franchise reboot was released (after a truncated production) to decidedly mixed results. 

While attempting to rescue a chimp test subject from the vacuum of space, astronaut Leo Davidson (Mark Wahlberg) is sucked into a portal and arrives on a strange planet with intelligent apes as the dominant species and humans as their slaves. Meeting human-sympathising ape aristocrat Ari (Helena Bonham Carter), Leo leads a Homo sapien prison break and embarks on a quest to an ape holy ground that contains the remains of his spacecraft, meanwhile the human-hating autocratic ape General Thade (Tim Roth) and his army seeks to wipe out the slave rebellion.

Planet of the Apes 2001 seems to be aiming to offer a very different experience to the 1968 classic of the same name – it wishes to be more epic and grand, but it can never quite escape its forebear’s shadow, and occasionally actively invites the comparison. The effects and makeup of the original might look relatively archaic today, but the complex themes and indelible imagery still hold up and then some. The story changes that screenwriters William Broyles Jr and Lawrence Konner decide to make serve little discernible purpose and the dialogue they decide to keep and re-purpose proves to be ill-thought-through: there’s an early groan-inducing species inversion of the original film’s most famous line, and later there’s a direct quote of the other famous line delivered by a cameoing, apeified Charlton Heston, seemingly under duress. 

This is not Mark Wahlberg’s best work sadly, partly because there’s very little opportunity for him to be earnest, which is what he’s best at, and partly because they filed off every edge of his character until he resembled little more than an astronaut Action Man. Luckily Helena Bonham Carter and Tim Roth make up for his shortcomings, projecting theatrical flourish, humanity (ape-manity? simian-ity?) and a remarkable amount of pathos as different kinds of outcasts from their society, all from behind Rick Baker’s detailed but hugely restrictive prosthetics.

Elsewhere the very best character actors inhabit the ape suits, from a dignified David Warner as a senator to a rumbling Michael Clarke Duncan as a general and Paul Giamatti, whose irredeemable, slimy coward slave trader is a particular highlight and seems to have arrived from a different and far funnier film.

It’s the rich and detailed production design that nearly saves the 2001 Planet of the Apes from bland mediocrity and is particularly memorable for not being typically Burton-y in its aesthetic. Burton is a strange choice for this material in general, with very few instances where you can tell it’s even him at the wheel, and he seems to have largely avoided further studio franchise fare on the back of a bad experience here – he declared afterwards he would “rather jump out a window” than do a sequel. The film’s production is now known to have been incredibly rushed and hobbled by studio interference, and Wahlberg has publicly declared that the script wasn’t good enough from the beginning and that a director like Burton should have been left to do what he does best. What else can be said but that Wahlberg was right.

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The film uses a lot of common fantasy epic tropes that would soon be enshrined thanks to the releases of Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter in quick succession later the same year. An unlikely group form a party to go on a quest; a prophecy is foretold; a series of skirmishes and chases break up their long journey leading up to a final decisive pitched battle, and then it all comes down to a one-on-one fight between the main hero and villain.

The fight scenes are pretty well done in general, and you have to feel for the poor stunt performers’ lower backs and legs after spending so long running on all fours as chimps, but the wirework used to make the apes leap ten feet in the air looks pretty laughable, as is the obvious and distracting use of stock sound effects including the infamous Wilhelm Scream in the big battle scene towards the end. 

While the original run of Apes films weren’t always the most tonally consistent films in the world (veering from high-concept parable to cheap schlock cash-in), at least they didn’t give you mood whiplash. On the one hand you have Roth playing a Shakespearean baddie and there’s a creepy scene of a privileged ape family picking out a little girl to be their house pet, and on the other you have something that feels like it has fallen out of a Carry On film when our heroes are being chased by soldiers and run through an ape brothel, interrupting an undressed lady ape teasing her customer. 

Surely if there’s one thing you don’t change in a Planet of the Apes remake it’s the ending? Whether more faithful to the Pierre Boulle novel or not, the new one just doesn’t make a lick of sense and is clearly just there to shock everyone who thinks they know which American landmark will be involved, or worse to set up a never-made sequel that might hypothetically have explained it.

Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes wasn’t a complete disaster – the production design remains outstanding and a couple of the better performances manage to make a connection – but almost every aspect of the storytelling was miscalculated and it still completely fails not only to live up to the original film or offer something memorably different. Tim Burton and 20th Century Fox left us with a dull, gritty re-imagining that doesn’t know what it wants to be, what it’s trying to say or how to keep its audience’s attention.


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