Director Tim Burton puts his distinctive dark spin on ‘Planet of the Apes’ update
This remake of the 1968 sci-fi classic has been kicking around Hollywood for years, with people like James Cameron and Oliver Stone attached to it at one point or another. For a while, it seemed unlikely that the film would ever get produced, which caused many fans of the original to breathe a sigh of relief. Who needed a remake, anyway?
Then Tim Burton got involved. This is the director who made Batman a bundle of violent neuroses, whose adaptation of "Sleepy Hollow" was a gruesome nightmare, who almost made Ed Wood seem like a visionary. Whatever Burton did with "Planet of the Apes," it was bound to be ... different.
Sure enough, this "Planet" has many of its director's trademarks, from the creepy, Gothic sets to another brilliant Danny Elfman score. The story's basic plot, however, remains largely intact: An astronaut, Leo Davidson, (Mark Wahlberg) crash-lands on a mysterious planet, where apes rule violently over enslaved humans. With the help of Ari (Helena Bonham Carter), a sympathetic ape, he joins up with a group of renegade humans and leads a revolt. Of course, things don't quite turn out the way anyone expected.
Yes, this means there's a surprise ending, although it's not the same as the one in the original, since that famous image wouldn't exactly be a surprise anymore. In fact, the entire explanation of how apes came to rule over humans is different now, which was probably a good idea, since it adds something new to the story instead of simply rehashing what was done before. There are also more subtle differences between this version and the previous one, including, most impressively, the apes' remarkable strength and agility. These are scary creatures, and it's no wonder the humans hide from them.
The film's visual style, from sets to make-up to costumes, is rich and detailed, although for some reason, all the female apes look like they just had a Mary Kay makeover, right down to the perfectly coiffed hair and smudgeproof lipstick. Why the choice was made to portray them this way is anybody's guess, since it is both distracting and unrealistic. (Why would ape women want to look more human if humans are supposed to be so inferior?)
Bonham Carter manages to be believable anyway, and Wahlberg is a surprisingly good choice for the lead, using his casual demeanor to make Leo into a reluctant hero who battles brawn with brains. It's the other actors behind the heavy ape prosthetics who make the movie, though -- they still sound like they're talking through masks, but they also show remarkable range, giving each of their characters a distinct personality. Paul Giamatti is particularly good as a cowardly slave trader, but the best of the bunch is Tim Roth, who plays the movie's snarling, sadistic villain, General Thade. Burton always has a particular affinity for his bad guys, and he lets Roth dominate every scene he's in, making him truly threatening.
The story's anti-racism message isn't any more subtle than it was 30 years ago, but preachiness doesn't come naturally to Burton, so he eases up after a while and focuses on the action, which he does very well. Unfortunately, he also throws in some humor that is wildly out of place in a film that can get fairly dark and serious. He just can't resist the urge to have Charlton Heston show up and say one of THOSE lines, during what would otherwise be a pivotal dramatic moment. At times like these, it's impossible to tell what kind of movie Burton is trying to make, and it occasionally seems as if he isn't sure himself.
The screenplay, credited to William Broyles Jr., Lawrence Konner and Mark D. Rosenthal, doesn't amount to much -- which is typical of a Burton film. It's neither good nor bad, just indifferent. At least the story holds together right up until the last couple of minutes, when Burton's desire to have a shocker ending overtakes his common sense. It's a scene emblematic of Burton's greatest strengths and weaknesses as a filmmaker: He creates strange and fascinating worlds, but the adolescent geek in him just can't leave well enough alone. At least he's a geek with talent.
'Planet of the Apes' is rated PG-13.