Planet of the Apes (2001)
Director: Tim Burton. Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Helena Bonham Carter, Tim Roth, Michael Clarke Duncan, Estella Warren, Paul Giammati, Kris Kristofferson, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Charlton Heston, Lisa Marie. Screenplay: William Broyles, Jr. and Lawrence Konner & Mark Rosenthal (based on the novel by Pierre Boulle and an earlier screen treatment by Michael Wilson and Rod Serling).

The best that can really be said about Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes, in general a monumental waste of time, money, and latex, is that it averts total catastrophe only by being blithely, almost helplessly distracted from its own offensive premises. Plus, it's not much fun to watch, partly because it is increasingly open to question whom exactly Tim Burton's movies are meant to entertain. The plastic accomplishments of his films, starting with 1985's Pee-wee's Big Adventure, have always been their signature achievements, and at least twice, in 1990's Edward Scissorhands and 1994's Ed Wood, Burton's sympathy for earnest, unassimilated dreamer-types nourished his visual imagination with some palatable emotion. His last few movies have been a different story. 1996's Mars Attacks! worked, despite or even because of its completely inhuman aesthetic, partially because Burton, ace cinematography Peter Suschitzky, and the game cast seemed both to spoof (affectionately) the idea of a movie based on playing cards even as they enacted one.

1999's Sleepy Hollow was a notably chillier affair: the careful stylization of lighting and décor increasingly overwhelmed any interest in the story or characters, and an awkward foregrounding of romance, never a Burton specialty, stuck the whole enterprise uncomfortably between genres. Certainly the movie seemed to capture the imaginations of its creators more than those of ticket-buyers, and the new Planet of the Apes languishes with all the same ailments. In fact, it is not long before the movie seems like no more than a profligate, misguided excuse for Rick Baker to have a heyday with his cosmetic armadas and for audiences everywhere to see decked-out, human size chimpanzees leap through the air with the height and velocity of football kickoffs. The spectacle isn't nearly as captivating the third time we see it, much less the thirtieth, than it is the first, especially since the glue holding all these set-pieces together never rises more than an inch from the arid ground.

Mark Wahlberg "stars" as Captain Leo Davidson, if the blankness of the role and dreary stoicism of his playing don't sap the verb of all meaning. Through a predictable prologue sequence that, to its credit, conveys a healthy nod to expediency, the film strands Leo on a swampy, overgrown jungle planet. (Downed aircraft, flaming water, tropical environs: think Cast Away, which, not coincidentally, was the most recent effort of William Broyles, Jr., one of this Planet's three credited screenwriters.) Only moments after crashing in, our bewildered hero is swept into a fleet-footed exodus of some bedraggled-looking humans clad in what looks like old, frayed shiprope. Leo is apprehended, along with every one of these runners, by the aforementioned leapin' gorillas. (Stranded survivor, sudden chase, fearsome captors: think the Flesh Fair recruitments in A.I. Artificial Intelligence, though that was a much more thrilling sequence in a much smarter movie that is destined, alas, to make much less money.) We presently discover, if we didn't already know from the 1968 Charlton Heston original, that Leo has stumbled into an alternate eco-order where apes perch atop the social and evolutionary ladders and abuse with relish the terrified, skittish human beings they have enslaved.

Nothing seems too amiss leading up to this juncture in the movie, which refreshingly doesn't tease us with much of that terror-in-the-shadows peep show stuff that's gotten awfully tired since the heyday of Jaws and Alien. Burton seems sufficiently in command of his material to realize that we came to see apes, and he pops them in front of us with speed and aplomb. Then again, a little more delay might have helped, because once we accustom ourselves to the ostensibly eye-popping settings and simians, we shortly realize there isn't much else afoot in Planet of the Apes, at least in the way of entertainment. For that matter, excepting Colleen Atwood's inventive panoply of costumes, the look of Planet of the Apes didn't strike me as all that special. Rick Heinrichs, who won an Oscar for Sleepy Hollow's art direction, has given the Ape constructions too much of the clay-model texture that made the climactic windmill locale in Hollow so cheap-looking.

Moreover, Rick Baker, six times Oscared and perhaps the most celebrated makeup artist in Hollywood history, has frankly disappointed with many of his gummy, disturbingly ethnicized ape outfits. Easily the most successful guise is that of Tim Roth's Thane, who is also by any other standard the film's most riveting character. Thane is a virulently anti-human hair-trigger whose violent contempt for homo sapiens is very nearly matched by his aggression against his fellows. Roth is an even more memorable thug here than he was in the differently "alien" universe of Woody Allen's Everyone Says I Love You, gnashing teeth, striding around with baboonishly coiled force, letting the various chips on his shoulders forever get the better of him. (Despotic bigotry, thwarted sexuality, family mourning, martial defeat: think Commodus in Gladiator.)

But the rest of Thane's hirsute henchmen are creative busts, not to mention conceptually queasy. Michael Clarke Duncan, most famous (or notorious) as the dim-witted colossus of The Green Mile, is fourth-billed as Attar, the second most visible and second most vicious of the apes. What makes Attar a far more galling character than Thane, and therefore makes Duncan among our most politically naļve actors, is that where Thane has all sorts of backstory explaining his hateful brutishness, Attar is just boringly, blankly bloodthirsty. That Baker has gone out of his way to make Attar so dark in coloring (and comparatively expressionless in features) is all the more disconcerting because the rank-and-file apes all share these qualities. One is reminded of the highly dubious ethnicizing in The Lion King, whereby the signal clue that life had deteriorated was not so much the ascendancy of Scar, who after all was the movie's most complex and interesting character, but the sudden prevalence of dingy-looking, reflexively violent hyenas mostly voiced by black and Latino actors.

Apes shares this ugly pattern of subtle racism, all the more ironic and depressing because the film, in its fitful impulses to Say Something about cruelty, domination, or freedom, tries to take some kind of party line about better living through diversity. Still, all kinds of allusions through dialogue, costume, and scenario, right up to the film's incoherent final scene, draw parallels to a specifically American history of race slavery (notwithstanding the fact that Apes the novel was written by a Frenchman), with the obvious reversal that "humans," most of them white, are suddenly the victims of those they had previously enslaved. What draws attention in this context is not the plight of the enslaved—Wahlberg and his cadre of fugitives could harldy be less interesting—than the nightmare vision of unslakeable, animal revenge that a newly empowered minority class would exert. No surprise that, if you're looking for signs of sympathy or nobility among the apes, you'll find them in Ari, not only the lightest-skinned ape around, but one inhabited by Helena Bonham Carter in a ridiculously lipsticked, eye-linered getup that's the most eye-rolling graphic rendering of "femininity" since the Revloned dragon in Shrek.

The rest of Planet of the Apes hardly deserves comment. Chris Lebenzon has edited the film with a stunning lack of fidelity to basic action-sequence parameters. For example, if you're staging a major chase, it helps to include the pursuants and the escapee in the same shot, so we have some idea of how close they are getting. Strangely, in other scenes, Wahlberg & Co. flee so nearly under the noses of their would-be predators that the pretense of stealth is a bigger gas than anything purposeful in the movie. Danny Elfman has contributed a score that, for the first time, is less interesting than his recent non-fantasy work, and the Ridiculous Acting sweepstakes are a toss-up among Paul Giammati as lead-footed comic relief; Kris Kristofferson, who dies only minutes after we have recognized him, leaving his fellow castmates highly envious; and Estella Warren, who gapes with ante-bellum revulsion at the kindnesses between Wahlberg's human and Bonham Carter's primate, and whose pitiable state of futuristic subjugation is most keenly felt in the fact that no one in this eon has thought to invent her a bra.

Estella's buxom vapidity is of a type that only Tim Burton would posit a mere stone's throw away from bravery. Her supermodel tresses, like the shots of apes in pajamas, chimpanzees in astronaut suits, and cave people beating their foes with papier-māché mallets, exert a fascination on this filmmaker that constantly returns so many of his movies to a hollow, childlike state of gee-whizzery. It is not clear if he is having fun or making fun. Indeed, here is an auteur so infantilely apolitical that he couldn't possibly be mounting the reactionary hogwash Planet of the Apes sometimes seems to be—and never more so than when Chuck Heston himself drops by for an unbilled cameo. Heston, like Kristofferson, is smart enough to expire promptly, but the movie, which takes more than two hours to sign off, possesses no such wisdom. Only films like this and certain national elections are able to present dull, thoughtless idiocy as a comfort, and only then because the averted alternative is something more calculatedly evil. And so it is with a minor sigh of relief that I report Planet of the Apes might not be hate-mongering, only half-baked and hare-brained. To quote Billy Crystal in When Harry Met Sally..., "Planet of the Apes? Try Planet of the Dopes." D+


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