July 27, 2001 -- Remaking a cult classic like "Planet of the Apes" is a perilous undertaking, but Director Tim Burton has pulled it off in stunning fashion. He has made a film as good, if not better, than the original.
The original, released in 1968, was a film for its time. It was the time of the cold war and it reflected nuclear paranoia. The remake is a clever adaption of a similar story, but not the same story. The star of the original movie, Charleton Heston, appears in this film as well, this time as an ape, and he repeats some of the same words he spoke as a human in the original, but the words have a different meaning this time. There are some other clever movie in-jokes as well. It is ironic for the head of the N.R.A. to be giving a gun to an ape, but maybe they have the right to keep and bear arms, too. The film merrily satirizes the original film and popular culture at the same time. A group of teenage apes hangs out on a street corner, playing rock music. An ape organ grinder plays while a small human begs other apes to put money in his hat.
The film's dynamic imagery is strongest when it comes to the issue of slavery and animal rights, the latter always a favorite cause in Hollywood. Unlike the original film, where humans were mute, they can talk in this film, and the whole genesis of the ascendency of the apes is different as well, although some of the sequels used a similar idea (there have been six "Planet of the Apes" movies and a TV series: Two called "Planet of the Apes," "Beneath the Planet of the Apes," "Battle for the Planet of the Apes," "Conquest of the Planet of the Apes," and "Escape from the Planet of the Apes").This particular incarnation of the idea stars Mark Wahlberg of "The Perfect Storm" as astronaut Leo Davidson. He tries to rescue a chimpanzee sent on a dangerous mission to a mysterious electromagnetic space storm. He gets caught in some kind of time warp and is sent into the far future. He lands on a planet dominated by apes. Humans are a marginal, nuisance species, kept as pets and slaves by the apes. Davidson is captured, but then escapes and seeks rescue by his fellow astronauts.
Davidson's chief nemesis is General Thade (played by Tim Roth of "Rob Roy") the ruthless leader of the apes, and a hater of humans. He has a soft spot for Ari (Helena Bonham Carter of "Fight Club"), a human rights advocate. Ari, an ape, has a soft spot for Davidson, as does a human, Daena (Estella Warren of "Driven"), who seems to be in this film mainly for decoration. Limbo (Paul Giamatti of "Cradle Will Rock"), an orangutan human trader, is the primary comic relief. He's quite funny. Michael Clarke Duncan of "The Green Mile") has a strong performance as Attar, second-in-command of the ape army. Kris Kristofferson is billed as a star in this film, but his role is not much more than a cameo.
Five-time Oscar-winning makeup artist Rick Baker heads the very able makeup crew. Most of the apes look better than they did in the original, and makeup was a strong suit in the original film. The stunt work is very good as the apes do some amazing acrobatics in the various fight sequences, aided by wires or special effects gimmicks. The movie is well-directed by Burton ("Sleepy Hollow") and is cleverly written by William Broyles Jr., Lawrence Konner and Mark D. Rosenthal. Despite the familiarity of the material, there are some surprises.
The movie's main problem, and this was true of the original as well, is that the story makes little or no sense from a rational, scientific point of view. It is more fantasy than science fiction. It is best viewed as an allegory. There is time travel and moving between alternate universes with no credible way to accomplish these seemingly impossible feats. The main thrust of the original movie was that apes were morally superior to humans. They did not kill each other and they did not wreck the environment. That gave them the moral cachet to treat the humans roughly. In the sacred scrolls of the apes in the original film, it was written: "Beware the beast man, for he is the Devil's pawn. Alone among God's primates, he kills for sport or lust or greed. Yea, he will murder his brother to possess his brother's land. Let him not breed in great numbers, for he will make a desert of his home and yours. Shun him, for he is the harbinger of death."
In the modern film, the apes are no better than humans. In that sense, the story loses some of its moral impact. Nuclear annihilation is no longer the threat it was in 1968, so it makes sense to drop this theme in the update. Animal rights is weak as an issue, however. It seems like the environment would make a better issue for an allegorical tale. While the original film was cheesy, it had more mythical power. The remake is slick and clever, with lots of sly in-jokes and some human insights. The remake is a considerably different film in some respects, but familiar just the same. Hollywood in recent years is not showing much originality, but this film at least tries to do something new with a familiar theme. It is a potent action film with some philosophical meat on its bones. It rates a B.
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