The remake of a much-loved classic raises our expectations, and with The Planet of the Apes, the bar is set high. The original 1968 version was a pop-culture phenomenon — a mixture of sci-fi camp and political moralizing which successfully came together in a way that only Hollywood at its best can make happen.
A deft allegory about race relations and the environment was combined with imaginative characterizations and carefully conceived action sequences to create a knockout piece of entertainment. Its tone was a perfect balance between dark satire and over-the-top earnestness. It produced memorable lines (“Take your stinkin' hands off of me, you damn dirty ape”) and archetypal images (the ruined Statue of Liberty buried in sand) that have been seared into our consciousness. The movie also spawned four sequels, a TV series, a cartoon and a comic book, all of which made money.
To those unfamiliar with the original, the current release of The Planet of the Apes will play like an OK summer popcorn film with some attempts at clever laughs. (However, the added violence makes it unsuitable for kids.)
Director Tim Burton (Batman and Ed Wood) has a butterfly intelligence that flits from one bright idea to the next without melding them into a coherent whole. Each notion triggers a separate gag, one-liner or visual pun whose payoff is the only point. They never add up. The humor is sly, mocking, self-referential and hip, much in the style of the successful Scream horror films.
Burton and screen-writers William Broyles, Jr. (Cast Away), Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal set their story in the near future with astronauts who leave earth for several years to explore the universe in huge space stations that house high-tech labs and space simulators. Capt. Leo Davidson (Mark Wahlberg) is training a chimpanzee for an exploratory flight. When the primate's pod is launched and disappears, Leo defies his superiors to try and find him.
Swallowed into a nebula, the astronaut crashes onto a strange planet where humans are slaves and apes are the overlords. Leo winds up as the house-servant of Ari (Helena Bonham Carter), an ape-senator's daughter and human rights activist who's the equivalent of a rich-kid liberal feminist. It's interesting that the filmmakers have no sense of humor about the contradictions that make up her political type.
The apes' society is meant to be a mirror image of certain authoritarian tendencies in our own. The humans are in a permanent state of rebellion, and the military has taken control in order to suppress them. “Extremism in defense of apes is no vice,” cracks army commander Gen. Thad (Tim Roth) in a joke that's intended to make fun of Barry Goldwater-like right-wingers. Ari rejects his courtship because of his semi-fascist principles.
The filmmakers don't inflate all this into a critique of conservatism. After some muddled speculation about whether both apes and humans can have souls, they move on.
Leo escapes from captivity with Ari, the beautiful, blonde slave-girl Daena (Estella Warren), a wise-cracking simian slave trader (Paul Giamatti), an ape-soldier (CaryHiroyuki Tagawa) without the usual anti-human prejudices, and some house servants. This mixed-species crew is supposed to represent the movie's dramatization of “why can't we all just get along?” — the Rodney King line which the filmmakers recycle in another stab at clever topicality.
The escapees trek across a forest and a desert in search of a means for Leo to get back to earth. They're pursued by an ape army led by Thad and forced to fight a big battle in which Leo's superior understanding of technology is their major asset.
That's it — a competent Saturday-morning TV sci-fi adventure plot, with $80 million spent to achieve the best in make-up, prosthetics, special effects and stunt work.
Meanwhile, a few of the jokes that punctuate the action may unsettle religious believers.
Attar (Michael Clarke Duncan), one of Thad's warlords, insists that his fellow apes bow their heads and say grace at meals. He prays to a “holy father” whom they hope will one day return and restore order. Others worship at private altars that are a melange of Christian, Buddhist and Hindu practices. One of their cult's relics looks like a folk-art rendering of the Sacred Heart. Inside is a pistol, the invention of which holds the key to understanding the difference between humans and apes.
The more you think about this, the less it makes sense. But the filmmakers can't resist the opportunities science fiction presents to knock organized religion. Attar's respectful spirituality is shown to be based on ignorance and myth. The sacred figure to whom he's been praying is revealed to be Simos, the original ape leader who overthrew the humans, not a divine creator. “Everything I have believed is a lie,” Attar moans.
Near the end there's also a half-baked riff on what Jungians would describe as “the messiah” archetype. “Someday they will tell a story about a human who came from the stars and changed the world,” Ari says to Leo as he prepares to leave her planet. “And some will say it is just a fairy tale.”
The movie remains true to its disjointed style and, unlike the recent releases Dogma, Stigmata and Chocolat, doesn't try to string these moments together into a sustained attack on established religion. In fact, it has no central theme beyond a vague notion of tolerance and the urge to deconstruct. But anyone who remembers the 1968 epic will feel cheated by this version's vapid content and cheap-shot irony.
Arts & culture correspondent John Prizer writes from Los Angeles.