This week I continue my attempt to review every Planet of the Apes movie leading up to Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Unfortunately this meant I had to tackle another bad film.
Tim Burton’s 2001 Planet of the Apes remake was the first film in the franchise I wasn’t looking forward to at all. Which is a bad sign given that I’m pretty much this film’s ideal audience – I’m a fan of Planet of the Apes and Tim Burton. Of course the critical consensus has long since come in for this project so I knew I shouldn’t be looking forward to it, but I tried to foster a faint hope. I figured this film might at least present an interesting, if not necessarily good or competent, variation on the first film. I wasn’t entirely wrong – Tim Burton’s variation was not good.
Some of it was interesting though? I guess…
Like I said before I like Tim Burton. Enough that I went to an exhibit with art he’d made from high-school and on that I found consistently interesting. Tim Burton is definitely a problematic filmmaker, normally on a script level. His films, when they display more of his personal style and taste, at least have an interesting feel about them. There’s a sense of tapping into Tim Burton’s untamed id that can be rough around the edges, and a little raw and unperfected, but is frequently interesting and entertaining. Tim Burton, however, dabbles in workmanlike studio projects. These are never good. Even when Burton’s visuals and focuses creep in they tend to kill these films. This is true of all of his work-for-hire films really. I know his Batman films have many defenders, but they are Not Good Films. (Or good Batman films.) Alice in Wonderland was bland and forgettable. And speaking of forgettable does anyone even remember Big Fish, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, or Dark Shadows?
What makes Planet of the Apes unique for a Burton film is the complete lack of identifiable Burton-esque touches. There’s almost no visual identifiers that would imply Planet of the Apes was the work of the man who made Beetlejuice or Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. The only recognizable touch of Burton is a resoundingly weird one. The way the film is edited and shot when the apes make their crazy powerful jumps is clearly his. It’s easier to spot if you imagine a comedic spring sound accompanying these shots.
What does make the film vaguely interesting to the newfound Planet of the Apes fan living inside me is the bizarre choices Burton makes on a story level when retelling this tale. The entire film is less of a remake of the original and more of a reimagining of it, which isn’t actually a bad choice. The first film is so perfect that a remake is pretty much a useless endeavour. Especially when you think about the fact that the first film hinges around a plot-twist so spoiled as to be completely useless in a remake.
The first film is also incredibly timely, relying on topical political commentary. Luckily this commentary stayed fairly resonant throughout the years, but it’s still so built into the story that a remake would need to take it in an entirely different direction. The reason Planet of the Apes is such a wonderful series is that the vast majority of the films have a core theme hinging around a political message. It’s not always a good message, and the worst films aren’t as coherent about it, but it’s still an attempt that sets them apart from most of the competition. So the 2001 remake is smart to largely attempt to try something new, but incredibly foolish to completely throw-out the idea of making social commentary.
That’s not entirely fair, but it’s just so confused about it’s uninteresting message that I’m discounting it. But more on that later.
This movie also uses time travel as a plot device. It immediately sets itself apart from the original by setting the film’s “present” in the future. Mark Wahlberg plays the lead, further proving he can’t really play a traditional leading man role well. He just seems befuddled most of the movie, which is not exactly the most engaging display of emotion an actor can muster. He turned down a major role in Ocean’s Eleven for this, so that’s something. He ends up travelling through time and space to a planet ruled by apes.
But let’s not follow through the story, let’s look at the chronology for the creation of this world.
A crew of humans and apes follow Mark Wahlberg though…let’s call it a time storm…and end up on the same planet way before him. Somehow they have enough chimpanzees, orang-utans, and gorillas (why would you bring two of those three species with you?) to allow three distinct strains of intelligent apes to develop. Also the apes reference monkeys later, so I guess they had some of those too. The apes get smart and attack the humans within their initial life-span, because that’s how evolution works.
These apes develop a society generally apposed to humans. They use humans as slaves; believing they’re only as smart as animals. Or so they claim. They have a senate. Tim Roth is their general. Helena Bonham Carter plays a spoiled Senator’s daughter who casually defends human rights, and then with zero character development, starts risking her life to fight alongside them. The army captures humans, sells them to Paul Giammatti, then buys them back. Which seems like a bad system.
Mark Wahlberg leads a human uprising against the apes, destroying a deep societal racism in the process. Then Tim Roth steals a spaceship and heads towards the time storm (Still around and nearby, apparently?) and freedom or whatever. Wahlberg follows him. He ends up on sort of present day earth. Tim Roth has apparently arrived many years earlier and pulled a Mark Wahlberg. He led his furry people against the human oppressors and consequently his face adorns a recreation of the Lincoln memorial. That’s the twist. Unlike the original it’s a complete non-entity as far as story or thematics is concerned. The original was all about showing the dangers of the way the human race was heading. Tim Burton’s ending is pretty much just a random gimmick.
Of course the movie is most confused about the humans. It can’t quite bother to actually figure out what they signify. Is it a message about how institutionalized slavery is bad (a message 2001-era America desperately needed)? Or maybe it’s a message about animal cruelty? See part of what made the first one’s message coherent is the fact that the human’s are mute. By clearly presenting a literal difference between the apes and human’s it allows for a plethora of powerful and crystal clear messages. In Burton’s film the human’s display absolutely no sighs of lesser intelligence, and yet the apes’s repeatedly claim they do. No, it’s not about how the apes are just super racist and believe the human’s are less evolved, they’re all impressed by Mark Wahlberg’s complete lack of intelligence, heralding him as unique.
Wahlberg doesn’t do shit in this movie, so it’s confusing.
Tim Roth is pretty great though. Well, great. Tim Roth is given a character so two-dimensional it makes Wahlberg’s character in Transformer’s Four look like a Daniel a Day Lewis character. It’s like the difference between Joost Swarte and MC Escher art. It’s so, so, so incredibly shallow. Tim Roth is angry and growls and hates humans. At one point he smashes a vase with a gun inside it learning of the past reign of humanity. After this he continues to be angry and growly. Tim Roth plays it with aplomb, it’s just so undeserving of his talents. Apparently he turned down the role of Snape in the Harry Potter films for this role, which is depressing to learn.
Helena Bonham Carter’s character is…interesting. Like all the character’s in this movie she’s completely devoid of character development. In fact the complete lack of character development in this film is distractingly consistent. No one grows, no one changes, no one waivers. It’s so incredibly stagnant. But Helena Bonham Carter is unique because she’s surreally sexualized. I mean, there’s a generic blonde lead in tattered rags throughout this movie, but Helena Bonham Carter is dressed in full ape make-up and the movie spends a remarkable amount of her screen time attempting to generate weird chemistry between her and Mark Wahlberg. This movie was the starting point of her relationship with Tim Burton. There’s a joke here to be made about the ape make-up, but Sequart is too classy to make it.
(The joke is that Tim Burton is secretly attracted to chimpanzees, if you couldn’t tell.)
The movie tries so hard to be like the original at times it’s bothersome. Especially given that it’s telling a different story. But that means it gets to work in distracting Planet of the Apes references (including Charlton Heston quoting the first film) at wildly distracting moments. It also seems to think that by vaguely mentioning off-screen political machinations it can recapture some of the interesting depictions of ape politics from the first film. This isn’t the kind of movie to present a compelling court case deciding the lead’s fate. No, this is the kind of movie that has a climactic battle with wholesale slaughter capped off in a clumsy metaphor about racism. The humour and references started to give me Hobbit flashbacks to be honest, something I like to avoid remembering at all costs.
There is one resoundingly amazing thing about this movie though.
Everyone stand up and give Rick Baker a round of applause. Right now. Do it. Rick Baker is the genius make-up artist behind the genius ape effects in this film. Actors are almost unrecognizable. Characters are distinct from one another. The apes look like apes, yet can emote. It’s unbelievably wonderful. The one weak spot is a design choice I suspect was enforced by the director – the female apes have human hair and it’s weird as hell. It’s probably tied to Burton’s uncomfortable sexualization of Helena Bonham Carter. Price Baker is the brilliant artist who worked on the effects in Videodrome, American Werewolf in London, Men in Black, The Exorcist, Mighty Joe Young, Star Wars, The Fury and more. Even movies he only consulted on, like Hellboy, have superior visual effects. His work on Planet of the Apes is phenomenal, especially when combined with the more ape-like movements the cast adopts. In fact the way these apes look and move is utterly awesome throughout the entire movie. It’s definitely the one redeeming factor. Between that and the design, which is a consistent carbon-copy of the first film, but moved to a forest setting, the movie frequently looks weirdly great.
Unfortunately it’s not even remotely enough to save it.
Tim Burton’s 2001 remake of Planet of the Apes is bad, boring, bland movie. It’s populated by bad, boring, bland characters. Generally these characters are played by entertaining actors, like Tim Roth and Paul Giammatti. This is excepting Mark Wahlberg, who comes across as bad, boring, and bland when forced into a generic leading man role. This is also excepting the human female lead. She is an attractive human female and literally nothing else. This should also not include Helena Bonham Carter, whose character is uncomfortable to watch. In fact most of the fun cast is given so little to do that any second of movie that’s actually entertaining is countered by two or three that are bad, boring, and bland. It’s definitely the worst movie of the franchise, and we should all be glad they never got to make more. Rick Baker is awesome though. Filmmakers! Keep giving him your money. Studios! Maybe start letting Tim Burton dick around in his own corner and keep him away from your tent poles. Apes fans! Join me next week for more.