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Anytime Hollywood remakes a classic (or near-classic) movie it begs the question "Is a remake necessary?" When I saw the name Tim Burton attached to a remake of Planet of the Apes, I didn't question Burton's ability to utilize his dark, comic vision (Batman, Sleepy Hollow, and Edward Scissorhands) when revisiting Pierre Boulle's classic novel. I fully expected he would deliver a movie with a new slant on the familiar material. Surprisingly, however, Planet of the Apes looks and feels less like a Tim Burton movie than anything else on his resumé.

Burton has gone on record as saying he wasn’t interested in doing a remake or a sequel. He wanted to "re-imagine the mythology." However, Burton's typically-fertile imagination apparently hit a wall. Maybe his energies were simply sucked dry by the logistics of handling armies of actors in ape suits. There isn't a single scene in Burton's Planet of the Apes that even comes close to unthroning the original version. For most of the movie's running time, Burton plods through the same terrain that Charlton Heston trod back in 1968. While the "what-if" scenario of apes vs. humans made for compelling cinema in the '60s, over thirty years later (and several sequels later, not to mention a television series) the scenario creaks and groans under the accumulated pop culture weight that it has acquired. Burton's idea of injecting new life is to crank up the camp factor -- as when a fashion-conscious female ape says, "I'm having a bad hair day" -- or to retread familiar dialogue from the original movie ("Damn you! Damn you all to hell!") in an altogether new context. But these revisions have the effect of trivializing the material, as if Burton has no idea how to take this project seriously.

While the 1968 Planet of the Apes was a serious science-fiction film, Burton's Planet of the Apes is a comic-bookish fable. Now we get apes bounding through the air as if they're refugees from an Hong Kong action flick. (These apes don't just jump. They soar improbably in parabolic arcs.) We get both apes and humans chattering away as if English is the only real language. (The savage humans in the 1968 version were only capable of grunts.) We get a surprise ending that replaces the Statue of Liberty with another national landmark, but the movie arrives at this location in a totally ludicrous fashion. While Franklin J. Schaffner's Planet of the Apes had weight and depth, Burton's Planet of the Apes is nonsensical.

Part of the problem can be traced to the casting. It speaks volumes about how Hollywood has changed over the last thirty years. While at one time, mature, dignified actors ruled Hollywood (Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, etc.), we now live in an era that has been turned over to teenagers. So instead of finding an actor with the authoritative weight of Charlton Heston, the producers instead opted for pretty boy Mark Wahlberg. Now, I like Wahlberg. I think he's one of the best young actors around, but he lacks the strength and integrity of Harrison Ford or Nicolas Cage or even George Clooney. And as a result, the movie has a big vacuum at its core. To fill this vacuum, Burton focuses on the bad guy--a military-minded chimp named Thade (Tim Roth in a magnificently malevolent performance). And Thade overpowers the movie. As happened on Batman, where the Joker completely overwhelmed the caped crusader, Burton allows--even encourages--his villain to steal the show.

With this shift in focus, the movie clumsily builds to a final encounter that pits Captain Leo Davidson (Wahlberg) against Thade in a mano-y-chimp duel. The screenplay by William Broyles Jr. (Cast Away and Apollo 13), Lawrence Konner (Mercury Rising), and Mark Rosenthal (Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country) never figures out how to resolve the impending battle between humans and apes and instead of offering a legitimate solution, they pull out a deus ex-machina ending that might be campy fun if it weren't so maddeningly simplistic and predictable.

For its first 90 minutes, Planet of the Apes does exactly what Burton said he wasn't interested in doing: it retreads ideas from the 1968 version. It shows us how the apes have become militaristic, even fascist, in their dedication to proving themselves as the superior species. Meanwhile, Ari (Helena Bonham Carter), a cute snuggle-bunny of a female chimp with distinct human-rights leanings, helps Captain Davidson escape because her knees get sort of wobbly looking at his bulging biceps. (There's an interesting theme here that the movie toys with but sidesteps altogether.) With her own life now threatened by her political actions, she must accompany Davidson as he runs away from the ape armies nipping at his heels. The movie's first 90 minutes are passable, but during the final 30 minutes the movie completely unravels. For fear that audiences wouldn't shell out big bucks at the boxoffice for the same old tricks used in 1968, the writers have concocted a completely new set of twists. In the process, the movie becomes gimmicky and absurd and cliché (as when a boy insists on helping during the final battle and his horse falls over, trapping the boy's leg beneath the horse so that Davidson must run to the boy's rescue).

Planet of the Apes is further evidence of Burton's shaky story-telling skills. Typically, when his movies stumble story-wise (as happened with Batman and Sleepy Hollow), you still had Burton's stunning visuals to look at. In this case, however, the film almost looks generic. One of the exceptions is the ape village. It is a marvelously intricate jumble of jungle vines and rock walls. It rises from the desert floor like the vast kingdom of an evil wizard. But throughout most of the movie, Burton's characteristic infatuation with dark contours and shadowy recesses is strangely AWOL. This story largely plays out in the blazing sun, and that's an environment that Burton shows little affinity for. As a result, he disappointingly allows the story's serious thematic concerns to deteriorate in favor of cartoonish skirmishes.

In one respect, this new version surpasses the 1968 version: the ape make-up and prosthetics. Special effects artist Rick Baker has created an amazingly realistic army of apes. The chimp Thade, in particular, is completely believable as an honest-to-goodness living-and-breathing creation. (However, while Thade is realistic, the chimp Ari is as artificially cute as an Ewok.) Instead of re-energizing the scenario, the filmmakers have focused on the special effects technology, and in the process Captain Davidson becomes an afterthought. And without his commanding presence, the movie spirals into increasing doses of camp and absurdity.

[rating: 2 of 4 stars]

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Movie Web site: Planet of the Apes



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