[With Dawn of the Planet of the Apes opening on Friday, July 11th, I'm taking a look back at the Planet of the Apes movie franchise. These reviews contain spoilers.]
Battle for the Planet of the Apes chose to end the original 5-film saga on a message of hope, and then the franchise lay dormant for almost thirty years. Interest had waned, fans had grown up, and that’s usually the signal for a studio to dig back into the archive to try and reinvent a property—no matter how classic or untouchable—for modern audiences, i.e. male teenagers with disposable income. Planet of the Apes had endured to where the mainstream was aware of the original insofar as the twist, the final shot, and “Take your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape!”
But after watching the first five movies, I think the franchise’s most admirable trait is its tonal flexibility in service of various themes. These movies were radically different, but they each had a distinct personality. Tim Burton‘s 2001 remake “re-invented” the franchise by removing any personality whatsoever.
In the year 2029, a scientific project based aboard the space research station Oberon is trying to teach genetically modified chimpanzees how to fly spaceships. This doesn’t sit too well with astronaut Leo Davidson (Mark Wahlberg) who believes piloting should be left to humans instead of “monkeys”. When the space station encounters an electromagnetic storm, the crew sends in the chimpanzee Pericles, but when the ape enters the storm, he and his spacecraft disappear. Davidson, refusing to wait even two minutes to figure out what could have happened, hijacks a space-pod, and goes in after the chimp. He too disappears into the storm, and when he comes out, he discovers that his chronometer has jumped millennia into the future. Then his pod crashes onto a mysterious planet, and we’re back into semi-familiar territory.
Before he can begin to get his bearings, Davidson and native humans are hunted down by apes led by the evil General Thade (Tim Roth). Davidson is captured, but before he’s knocked out and thrown in to a caged vehicle (being pulled by humans, which is a nice touch), he’s told by his captor Attar (Michael Clarke Duncan), “Get your stinking hands off me, you damn dirty human!” [Hold for audience laughter; receive polite chuckle at best]
Davidson, along with native human Daena (Estella Warren), is sold to slaver Limbo (Paul Giamatti), and the movie hints at becoming interesting. It may be a bit too overt when it comes to a slavery parable, but it’s far better than the hollow set pieces we’ve got so far. But instead, the scene mostly serves as an introduction for Ari (Helena Bonham Carter), who believes that humans should be well-treated (or at least as well-treated as an enslaved person can be). In order to protect Davidson (whom she crushes on immediately), Ari buys him and (reluctantly) Daena, and then puts them to work in the kitchen before having dinner with her influential father Sandar (David Warner), Thade (who wants to make a power-grab by marrying Ari), and some other wealthy apes.
Following a dinner scene where Ari argues that humans have souls and everyone at the table laughs her off, she helps Davidson, Daena, and some other humans escape, and the plot splits into two, uninteresting plotlines. The first has Davidson believing that the Oberon has sent out a rescue ship, which he can reach by following a tracking device, and the other follows Thade, who has discovered Davidson’s ship and wants to interrogate the spaceman in order to learn more about the advanced technology, which could make the general even more powerful. The problem is that both of these storylines are led by one-dimensional characters, or in the case of Davidson, a 0.5-dimensional character at best.
Mark Wahlberg is as good as the material and direction he’s given. Films like Boogie Nights and The Fighter work because they take his imposing, chiseled physique and then highlight vulnerability and other subtle personality traits thus providing a compelling juxtaposition (movies such as The Italian Job and The Departed are able to ride on his charisma and adding brains to brawn). Throw him in The Happening, Transformers: Age of Extinction, or Planet of the Apes, and you get mindless beefcake. He’s handsome but his personality is as captivating as drywall. Planet of the Apes gives Wahlberg absolutely nothing. At best, you could describe Davidson as irritable.
Then you have Roth chewing scenery and being as over-the-top as possible. Whenever the plot gives Thade the opportunity to get angry, the character screeches like crazy and jumps around like he wants to break his back doing wirework. He’s also caught up in a weird subplot where it’s not enough to just find Davidson in order to get more information about the spaceship. He has to visit his ailing father Zaius (Charlton Heston), and discover that there’s an artifact that’s been handed down for generations since the messiah-ape Semos. Inside the artifact is a gun, which is foreign technology to the apes. It’s part of the convoluted mystery of how the apes came to be, and answer is wholly unsatisfying.
When Davidson and his fugitive group of humans and apes finally reach their destination, he’s surprised to discover it’s not a ship but the entire space station, and it’s been there for millennia. When he checks the ship’s log, it’s revealed that the crew went in after him, but then the genetically modified apes, led by Semos (an ape never mentioned as being part of the Oberon experiments, so it’s an unfair reveal), took over, and that the apes and humans who survived the uprising are the ancestors of the planet’s current inhabitants. Man’s folly isn’t nuclear war and discrimination; our mistake will be teaching genetically modified apes how to fly spaceships. No good ever came from sending primates into space.
In a surprising inverse of the original movie, the remake appears more enamored of religion than science. Thade wants to use the downed spaceship as a way to acquire more power, and even though Zaius says humanity’s strength is the power of invention, Davidson tells his group, “The more we know, the more dangerous we are.” The climactic battle between Thade’s troops and the humans who have flocked to follow Davidson for some inexplicable reason (he’s as confused as we are; how would a culture with no means of long-range communication even know about him, and if they did, why would they see him as a savior when he’s done absolutely nothing to save them thus far?) ends when Pericles and his ship come out of the sky, and the apes believe that it’s the return of Semos. Thus, a messiah figure puts an end to war and the enmity between apes and humans. At best, you can see it as science is worthwhile even if it’s misinterpreted as supernatural and divine.
Concepts such as science-versus-religion and the barbarism of slavery were core issues of the original Planet of the Apes. The movie is built around these issues from the opening scene to the conclusion. Rather than a single dinner scene, the story pauses for plenty of conversations, and characters stopping to test the status quo. The trial in the original is terrific encapsulation of scientific proof coming to odds with religious dogma. Images like the military apes standing on top of their human kill are a precise reflection of humanity’s cruelty. These are weighty ideas, and the 1968 movie treats them as such as do the sequels with their respective themes.
The remake is nothing but lip-service. There’s the potential to do something interesting with Limbo because he’s a slave-trader (a role that’s now slightly weirder considering Giamatti played a human slaver in 12 Years a Slave), but he’s mostly a comic relief character. When he’s captured by Davidson’s group and forced to come along so that he doesn’t blab to the authorities, he says about Ari, “I’ve heard her talk about humans. ‘Separate but equal’; ‘To each his own,’ Stuff like that right?” Because Limbo’s comment is treated as a glib remark and nothing more, we don’t know if segregation is what Ari actually believes (which would be interesting) or if Limbo just misunderstands her. It’s a nod to discrimination, but without any investment or emotion.
There’s no obligation for a Planet of the Apes movie to be deep and challenging, but Burton’s remake isn’t even fun. It’s a mostly humorless affair with my biggest laugh coming from when a little girl got thrown in a sack during Thade’s raid. The climactic battle is a lame showdown in a dune where everything is mostly obscured by sand blowing around everywhere. It’s one of the many ways the film shows that the budget was cut and they were rushed in order to make their July release date.
And the weirdest thing about the movie is that it isn’t weird. Burton is a director who’s skilled at quickly establishing setting even if over the course of his career those settings have now blurred together to the point of self-parody. Planet of the Apes is an outlier because it’s so anonymous, and it’s only by the time we reach the dinner scene that it becomes clear what the director is attempting to do. Moving away from his comfort zone of fanciful, off-kilter designs, he’s basically tried to recreate a Roman empire but with apes. The apes are decadent, their armor is reminiscent of Roman designs, and the Romans enslaved other cultures to perform tasks such as housekeeping or providing friendship to Roman children (in one of the movie’s more amusing scenes, a young chimp purchases the sacked little girl).
But the production design, which has always popped in Burton’s movies, is flat and cheap. The ape caves are one-step up from the 90s game show Legends of the Hidden Temple. I never doubted for a moment that I was watching characters on an unimpressive movie set. Aside from a few engravings, this set may as well be from the late 1960s/early 70s, which could have been charming had Burton gone for that aesthetic. Instead, it’s lazy and half-hearted like the rest of the movie with the exception of Rick Baker‘s amazing special effects makeup for the apes.
The only bizarre thing in the movie is Ari’s affection for Davidson. It goes way past a general affinity for his species. She is part of a love triangle that also includes Daena, a member of a primitive culture that still managed to discover makeup. Aside from Davidson having zero personality and the film never even taking a moment to have any of these characters bond on a significant level, I still have to applaud Burton for sneaking something as insane as bestiality past the studio. When Zira kisses Taylor in the original, it’s a funny little moment. Judging by the many shots of Ari giving longing glances towards Davidson, we know that ape straight up wants to fuck a human.
Before re-watching the film earlier this week, I had only seen Burton’s Planet of the Apes when it came out in theaters. I had forgotten almost everything about it, including the fact that the movie considers an interspecies relationship as a legitimate part of a love triangle. But I still remembered the absolutely awful ending that still makes no goddamn sense.
For those who forgot or never saw the movie, here’s what happens: Davidson gets on board Pericles’ ship, and goes back to his time and also returns to Earth. He crashes into Washington, D.C.’s Reflecting Pool and the spaceship skids to the front of the Lincoln Memorial…except it isn’t the Lincoln Memorial! Lincoln’s head has been replaced with Thade’s head even though when Davidson left the planet, Thade was imprisoned inside the space station. Then cops pull up to the Lincoln Memorial (or Thade Memorial, I guess?) and they’re all apes. The ape-cops arrest a baffled Davidson and we fade to black.
So did Thade manage to escape, go back in time, and liberate apes from humans? Did Davidson travel into a parallel universe even though parallel universes are never mentioned in the movie? Thinking about the ending of Burton’s Planet of the Apes makes my head hurt. It’s as if someone said, “Our movie needs to have an ending like the original. It’s a twist involving a monument or something.”
Reading over the Wikipedia page and learning about the movie’s long development, it becomes clear that the remake of Planet of the Apes is a bunch of scripts stacked on top of each other. In 1988, Fox commissioned a draft from Adam Rifkin, who decided to write an alternate sequel to Planet of the Apes where “the ape empire had reached its Roman era.” Then there’s the Sam Hamm script where the characters return to Earth at the end to find that apes have taken over the planet and “The Statue of Liberty’s once proud porcelain features have been crudely chiseled into the grotesque likeness of a great grinning ape.” And if the ape landmarks still seem weird, “One of the considered endings [for Burton's film] had Leo Davidson crash-landing at Yankee Stadium, witnessing apes playing baseball.” How that makes any more sense than crashing at the Thade Memorial is beyond me.
Going through the brief synopses of all these ideas, some seem interesting, and could have been exciting new entries in the franchise. Burton said he wanted to do a “re-imagining” but there wasn’t much imagination in his forgettable remake of an unforgettable film. Thankfully, by the time Burton’s Planet of the Apes had been forgotten, it was possible to make the franchise memorable for a new audience while still respecting the original fans.
[Tomorrow: Rise of the Planet of the Apes]
- Planet of the Apes
- Beneath the Planet of the Apes
- Escape from the Planet of the Apes
- Conquest of the Planet of the Apes
- Battle for the Planet of the Apes
- Rise of the Planet of the Apes