The ending of Tim Burton's PLANET OF THE APES is one that I like. Because I
enjoy pondering the details of almost any film I've seen, this original
divergence from Pierre Boulle's novel – as well as from the 1968 Charlton Heston
vehicle – is fascinating, if rather unpopular among many American viewers.
Although the quality of Tim Burton's films is uneven, each one of his works is
an event. Craftsmanship and vision showing in each one, Burton's movies are
steadily building him the reputation of an American master. In his dark
imaginings Burton reminds me of the writer T. C. Boyle, who began publishing his
stories and in little magazines and then progressed to putting out novels with
major publishers. Likewise, Burton paid his dues early in his career, and has
been fortunate enough to be able to impose brilliant originality on his films –
even though the movie machines of Hollywood expect many dollars in return. Don't
know about you, but I'll admit to a willingness to see a film just because
Burton's name is the last one in the opening credits.
What's cool about PLANET? Perhaps the setting is not as visually stunning as in
BATMAN, but it is just as dark. In fact, most of the piece has received the
criticism of being rather lightless. The symbolism works well, though: the dark
heart of man has engineered this chaotic hell, and man is suffering the just
deserts. The simian beings that rule the planet – and there many races of apes,
as well as many forms of racism – occupy quarters that appear comfortable.
Structures sit among huge trees and hills that must be difficult to navigate for
mere humans. No doubt the set's magic is aided through painted backdrops and
canvases sketched upon the computer.
The film really does move. Not many subplots divert our attention. When Leo
Davidson (Mark Wahlberg), in an attempt to rescue a space pod piloted by a
chimp, flies into an electromagnetic storm, he is flung far into the future.
Crashing through the forest of this seemingly alien planet, he sinks in a murky
pool, reminiscent of the creepy swamp where Luke Skywalker is mentored by Yoda.
But Davidson has no familiar faces around. The humans he spies seem somehow
subhuman. After the apes round them up, the stage is set for an escape
engineered by Davidson, the American Air Force officer who is not willing to
accept this world turned on its ear. The escape attempt takes up much of the
running time, with the band of humans accepting aid from a female ape named Ari
(Helena Bonham Carter) and exploring the forbidden desert where, according to
mythology, the ape civilization began.
Apes caging humans? The irony is delicious, and the moral is as clear as it was
in the 1968 version. How should we treat animals? What role will evolution play
in the future? When will the world finally be free of slavery? Gladly, Burton's
version presents these questions while refraining from clearly answering them.
Unfortunately, the film's agenda also includes an oblique attack upon
Christianity, specifically, the idea that a being will return to spread
salvation upon his people. It certainly seems as though this founding father is
imbued with more superhuman traits than a mere Arthurian figure.
As Davidson, Mark Wahlberg is competent but not outstanding. His goal is to get
himself off the planet, and we like him only mildly because his character is
developed too quickly. His decision to steal a pod and try to rescue the chimp
has consequences that reverberate throughout universal history: here's what
would really happen if Star Trek's Prime Directive were breached! Wahlberg is a
decent action hero, though the script perhaps could have given him more
Carter is very good as the sympathetic ape Ari. She is actually a human rights
activist who is not human! Rick Baker's makeup people have given her comparably
little facial hair, so it is easier for us to accept a slight romantic interest
between her and Davidson. Bonham Carter's performance proves again that a good
actor can shine through the heaviest disguise.
The strongest acting is turned in by the baddie. If I might continue the
comparison to STAR WARS, what Darth Vader is to Luke, General Thade (Tim Roth)
is to Davidson. The perfect rival and foil – a simian Machiavelli. Roth must
relish the role of a "heavy," as he grows delirious with all-too-human hatred
and vengeance in PLANET. Along with Gary Oldman, Tim Roth is setting the
standards for villains in the modern cinema.
Paul Giamatti is buried under the guise of a slave-trading orangutan, but his
performance is solid. He's very funny; part of the irony here is the
personification that shines through this supposedly non-person. What a strong
character actor Giamatti is.
Estella Warren as Daena, the comely human woman who is part of the escaping
band, is underused. In this area the script is unsure what to do. Should
Davidson grow more attached to Daena or to Ari? We can't decide either. Michael
Clarke Duncan is barely recognizable as General Thane's protégé, General Attar.
This mammoth actor again turns in a rather quiet but solid job, though Attar's
character seems occasionally conflicted. Finally, Kris Kristofferson is vastly
underused. His craggy face just begins to add a rounder dimension to the plight
of the humans on this terrifying planet, when he is plucked from the story.
In a wise and witty appearance, Charlton Heston wears the ape latex in this
revisiting. He's Thade's father, whose dying words reveal some of the mysterious
history behind the race reversal. Look for some clever references in this
In a season that is rather bare of well-made films, PLANET OF THE APES is
competent if not spectacular. It's full of action and engaging special effects,
and the appearance of the apes is, probably for the first time, believable,
thanks to Mr. Baker and his crew. What makes the film better than average is the
risks taken by Burton, especially with that heady ending.
Copyright © 2001 Mark OHara