Something Simian, Something Sinister

By John Anderson

From Newsday (New York, NY), 07.27.2001

(2 STARS) PLANET OF THE APES. (PG-13) U.S. Air Force pilot, sucked up by a celestial wormhole, is spit out on a planet ruled by fascist primates. Tim Roth dominates as the big bad ape, the set design is inspired, but you might say the human element is lacking. And that ending? Possibly written by a chimp. With Mark Wahlberg, Helena Bonham Carter, Michael Clarke Duncan, Paul Giamatti, Estella Warren, Charlton Heston. Screenplay by William Broyles Jr., Lawrence Konner, Mark Rosenthal, based on the novel “Monkey Planet” by Pierre Boulle. Directed by Tim Burton. 1:40 (violence). At area theaters.

SLINKING, SNARLING AND sniffing his enemies with murderous intent, Tim Roth’s uber-primate General Thade gives the new and not quite improved “Planet of the Apes” nearly the juice it needs to save itself, if not the entire movie summer. But in trying to reverse the plotline of the original five films, director Tim Burton has also reversed their attitude, too: Instead of clumsily executed, overly serious sci-fi, we now get something glitteringly facile, and cripplingly glib.

Flipping the apes-as-slaves motif of “Conquest of” and “Battle for the Planet of the Apes,” Burton’s film proposes an ape-run planet in which humans are not just enslaved but, in Thade’s view, dangerous enough to warrant total extinction. Into this totalitarian nightmare rockets Air Force pilot Leo Davidson (Mark Wahlberg), refugee from the space station Oberon, who valiantly follows one of his ship’s worker chimps through an electro-magnetic time warp and finds himself hip-deep in monkeys and metaphor.

Burton’s film, marked by the visual grandeur that has always been his calling card, is saddled with a script by William Broyles Jr., Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal that goes for the gag every time it can – often feebly, sometimes desperately. This is done largely, but not always, by quoting liberally from the celebrated 1968 ancestor of the entire cult, the film in which Charlton Heston – who appears here to deliver an ironic, albeit self-serving anti-gun message – found his destiny in the Forbidden Zone.

Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. “Damn them all to Hell!!!” Heston bellows, as Thade’s ailing ape father, who knows the legacy of humankind. “Take your stinking hands off me, you damned dirty human!!” a soldier ape tells a beaten Leo, the latter struggling to his feet. “Can’t we all just get along?” asks the sniveling Limbo (Paul Giamatti), the comical slave trader whose Rodney King line resurrects, with little apparent thought, the race-relations subtext of the old “Apes” series.

Roth aside, the cast is a handicap: Wahlberg can’t carry a movie like this; the ubiquitous Estella Warren, playing a human, is singularly unconvincing. But what makes Burton’s ape world more compelling than the original is that the gap between primate and man is so much smaller than it was back when Heston crash-landed. His character, Taylor, found an ape civilization advanced to about the point of the early Renaissance; had Galileo been an advocate of human rights – humans being mute and mangy – he would have been excommunicated by the movie’s fundamentalist orangutans/guardians of primate culture.

In the new film, the apes are pre-Hastings, post-Athens, a little to the right of the Caesars’ Rome. Apt, given the movie Burton is really remaking.

It may simply be that Stanley Kubrick’s presence is as palpable this summer as it has been in 20 years, but Burton’s “Apes” isn’t just a classic western (Leo drops in, fights evil, rides on). It’s also “Spartacus.” Thade, like Laurence Olivier’s Crassus, uses the slave revolt instigated by Leo to consolidate political power. Leo, reluctant hero, is able to organize the human swarm into a fighting force willing to confront the overwhelming power of the empire’s “legions” and die for freedom. Ari (Helena Bonham Carter), child of a senator and with a pretty obvious cross-species attraction for Leo, sides with the enemies of her race (see Jean Simmons). There are scenes in obvious homage to Kubrick’s gladiator movie, but to explain them further would give away the ending upon which the enjoyment of this “Apes” no doubt depends.

And yes, there is a “surprise ending.” The guess is here that knowing laughs will anticipate that final befuddling shot, with irritation to follow: While most of this “Planet of the Apes” is built on a fairly solid, inventive narrative structure, the twist Burton leaves us with is just a joke – something in keeping with the rest of his film, but somewhat unworthy of the decades-long devotion on which he and Fox are hoping to cash in.