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Monday, June 23, 2014

Director Report Card: Tim Burton (2001)

9. Planet of the Apes

The “Planet of the Apes” series is one of the earliest examples of a mainstream studio spending major money on a long-running, science fiction series. The original, and a few of its sequels, are classics not just because of amazing creature effects or an iconic twist ending. The classic “Apes” series is also friggin’ weird. The films combine sci-fi action-adventure with serious social commentary, satire, goofy sight gags, and persistently downbeat endings. The series’ legendary status in pop culture, and the fact that the movies had made 20th Century Fox a lot of money over the years, made a new “Apes” movie inevitable. A series relaunch had been in development since the eighties and was, at one point, going to be produced by James Cameron, star Arnold Schwarzenegger, and feature apes playing baseball. A new “Planet” wasn't successfully created until 1999 with Tim Burton in the director’s chair. Burton’s ability to combine personal weirdness with big budget spectacle, not to mention his self-professed love of the original, made him seem like a good choice to helm a new “Apes” film. The final product didn’t hold true to that opinion. 2001’s “Planet of the Apes” is widely regarded as the lowest point in the director’s career.

The film begins in the distant future, on a space station where chimps are being trained to pilot space pods. When an ape disappears into a strange cosmic storm, head trainer Leo Davidson follows after it. After falling through the storm himself, he winds up on a strange planet where humans are enslaved as primitives and intelligent, talking apes lead a complex society. Precocious ape Ari wants to befriend the humans while Thade, a general, wants to wipe the species out. Davidson’s appearance, which has him escaping ape custody and attempting to find a way home, heats up the conflict between human and ape.

Burton’s “Planet of the Apes” has the dubious distinction of introducing the word “re-imagining” to the studio press kit world. The film is not a direct remake of any of the original films. Instead, it takes the central concept – a planet where apes rule and humans are treated as animals – and tells a different story. You would assume taking the series in a different direction, with a director with such a bold visual sensibility at the lead, would result in a very different “Apes” experience. The most disappointing thing about 2001’s “Planet” is how little of Burton’s style is in the film. Occasionally, the director captures a unique or interesting image on screen: An ape hangs upside down, the camera craning around to his point of view. An injured chimp limping into his cage. A man standing in a temple, facing down a strange new world. The director’s sense of humor pokes through a few times, especially when contrasting the ape’s advanced society with their more animal-like behavior. However, “Planet of the Apes” is distressingly lacking in Burton-esque elements. No expressionistic sets, no black and white spirals, no outcast heroes or strange girl romantic leads. Ultimately, most anyone could have directed this film.

The film was not well received upon release. Save for one element. Legendary creature effects guru Rick Baker was put in control of creating the apes’ make-up and designs. The result is some of the effects man’s best work. The apes of the film are a brilliant blending of simian characteristics and human-like elements. The attention to detail in the faces and hair is spell-binding. Amazingly, each ape has a personality. An elderly orangutang has large jowls hanging off his face. Chimps grimace wildly while gorilla beat their chest and sneer. Ari, the lead female ape, is almost eerily too human, the character being given humanoid lips, eyelashes, and a haircut. One of the smartest things Baker did was create complex facial appliances that didn’t obscure the actors’ eyes. Doing so allows a range of expression usually unseen in make-up like this. An astonishing amount of work went into even minor background characters. Each ape is a fully formed design and amazingly life-like.

Baker’s creature make-up is not the only example of the film’s budget being up on the screen. The most Burton-esque element is the film’s spectacular production design. In the ape cities, homes have been built into trees. Arching root hallways and simple stone floors gave the impression of a society that is advanced but chooses to remain in touch with nature. One of the my favorite elements of the film is the ape military. Each soldier wears distinctive armor, red in coloration, decorated with swirling plates and pointed helmets. When camped out in the dessert, the soldiers sleep in huge, red tents. Even the ape weaponry has a unique design to it, General Thade wielding a pair of star-shaped clubs at one point. The movie has many problems and lacks the director’s trademark style yet there’s no denying that “Planet of the Apes” is lovely to look at.

An incredible amount of work went into realizing the ape planet on screen. And not just in the make-up, sets, and costumes. The buildings are designed to be climbed over, fitting the ape physiology. More then once, we see apes use their feet like secondary hands. Some of my favorite moments are minor. An ape street musician plays an instrument with his hands and feet. A group of ape teenagers party in an alleyway. During their downtime, a trio of ape soldiers play cards.

As presented in the film, ape society is roughly equivalent to the Roman Empire. Ape senators control the politics. The army, and constant military expansion, is an important part of every day life. Slavery is a common practice and is widely accepted. Debates rages over the morality of slavery but it’s clear it’s not going away any time soon. It’s an interesting parallel to present and roots the fantastic premise in reality. The film even gets into the concept of ape religion. A major character is a religious fanatic, worshiping the Ape Jesus who was the first ape to live. One of the major disappointments of the film is that, when the truth of the apes’ origin is revealed, there isn’t more of a cultural fall-out. The original “Planet” series has excellent world-building and, flaws and all, the 2001 version continues that trend.

The movie also has the benefit of putting some great actors under those elaborate make-ups. Front and center is Tim Roth as General Thade. Roth imbues Thade with enough villainous zeal for several movies. The character hisses and growls every line, putting visceral hatred into everything he does. Thade is a constant schemer, always looking for ways to advance his own state of power. Even his father’s death doesn’t seem to set him back very much. The role is not complex but Roth puts an incredible amount of energy into it, making Thade an intimidating, fascinating character.

Perhaps stealing Roth’s thunder a little is the second major lead. Helena Bonham Carter plays Ari. She is the ideological opposite of the racist Thade and believes humans and apes can co-exist in peace. Carter makes Ari seem like more then a rebelling teenager, giving the character a considerable intelligence. The actress also brings a lot of humor to the part, whooping in fear when faced with water. Most surprisingly, she also makes the character oddly sensual. Ari has far more chemistry with Mark Walhberg then he does with the incredibly flat and unimportant human love interest played by Estalla Warren. In the finished film, Ari only kisses Davidson. Apparently, in an earlier draft, the two actually had sex. Weird as it sounds, that seems like a really natural decision. It’s not exactly hard to see why Burton fell in love with Helena on this film as she’s an entrancing presence.

Even the supporting cast is filled out with prime character actors. Michael Clarke Duncan probably could have gorilla-growled his way through his part as Attar, the head general. However, the character’s religious convictions at an interesting layer and allow Duncan to show a softer side, occasionally. Paul Giamatti is fantastically sleazy as Limbo, an orangutang slave trader. He winds up following the heroes around, mostly by accident, leading to a lot of opportunities for comic relief. Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa plays totally to type as a dishonored ape solider. (At least he’s not a samurai.) David Warner is a distant head of state. Glenn Shadix is a rotund, decadent orangutang senator while Lisa Marie is his shallow, eye-candy wife. While few of these actors are exploring new ground, each inhabit the roles fully. Most importantly, they use ape-like posture and body language, making their transformation even more believable.

So the film builds a gorgeous, convincing world and fills it full of interesting characters played by great actors. What’s the problem then? Right in the center of the movie is a giant, sucking black hole shaped like Mark Wahlberg. Wahlberg is soundly uninvolving as one of the blandest Hollywood protagonist ever brought to flat, unconvincing life. His Bahstan accent is incredibly distracting in the sci-fi setting. Davidson is blandly heroic and weirdly opportunistic, when you consider he does everything just so he can get home. Wahlberg’s flat as can be performance sets a precedence. If there’s an actor in the movie and they aren’t under make-up, chances are they’re a total bore. A complete snooze of a protagonist is the movie’s biggest problem.

The “Ape” series is also famous for sneaking social commentary in under its outrageous science fiction premise. 2001’s “Ape” begins as a none-to-subtle allegory for slavery. Humans are rounded up, chained in cages, sold at market, and forced to do menial labor in the apes’ homes. They are treated as property and those that consider them as, well, human are treated as outsiders. However, if the movie was attempting to say something about slavery, there’s no clear message. The cruelty faced by the enslaved is not explored enough to make an impression. The film seems to be making some sort of clumsy statement about firearms as well. Guns are presented as the object that separate humans from apes. When an ape gets his hand on a gun, he either smashes it immediately or it leads to his downfall. The film doesn’t delve into gun control or rights on any deeper level. It’s merely the faintest wisp of social commentary, not revealing or exploring anything.

More over, the movie abandons this subtext midway through for uninvolving action theatrics. The climax is a massive showdown between the apes and the humans, full of explosions and violence. However, there’s little reason to be interested. Aside from a few colorful moments, like the apes running on their knuckles or the final fate of the main villain, the climax is routine and flat. The finale even moves the action out of the ape city, taking place in a bare, nondescript desert. So we don’t even get to look at the neat sets. By the end, much of what made “Planet of the Apes” involving vanishes off-screen.

And then there’s that baffling ending. Throughout, the film makes cutesy references to the original series, like the famous “Damn dirty ape” line being put into a gorilla’s mouth or Charlton Heston’s cameo as the ancient ape who guards the gun. The new film attempts to create a twist ending that can stand up to the original’s iconic shocker. The result is baffling at best. Marky-Mark makes it back to Earth and lands in front of the Lincoln Monument. Inside, however, he sees not Abraham Lincoln but Ape-raham Lincoln and is greeted by a police force of Earthly apes. Supposedly, a sequel would have explained this non-sequitur of an ending. Since that never happened, the viewer is left scratching their head. The explanation that was eventually given is clumsy, presuming that a lot happened off-screen, and winds up confusing the issue further. Though intended as a homage to the original novel’s ending, the effect is only confusing, never shocking or surprising.

The 2001 version of “Planet of the Apes” ultimately has a reputation it doesn’t entirely deserve. From the perspective of make-up and art design, the movie works fantastic. Unfortunately, a boring leading man, routine screenplay, and confounding ending makes the movie more problematic then memorable. As a Tim Burton movie, there’s little about it to recommend. The apes wouldn’t return until 2011 when a new reboot would deliver the brains and heart we’ve come to expect from the series. Brains and heart that this version is severely lacking. [Grade: C+]

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