Movie Review: Planet of the Apes
By Michael Wilmington, Chicago Tribune Movie Critic
Of all this summer's hot-buttered-popcorn movies, "Planet of the Apes" is my favorite so far. It's a wannabe blockbuster with refreshing energy a Hollywood super-spectacle loaded with voluptuous visual effects and graced with subversive blasts of playfulness and wit.
Director Tim Burton has taken the 1968 sci-fi classic in which Charlton Heston is an astronaut marooned on a planet where apes are in charge and humans are chattel and turned it into a high-speed nightmare comedy-adventure, sweetened by writers William Broyles Jr. ("Apollo 13"), Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal ("Star Trek VI") who give it hip political satire ("Extremism in the defense of apes is no vice!" roars a reactionary ape) and inside showbiz gags.
The '68 "Planet," which spawned four sequels and two TV shows, was best known for its Vietnam-era socio-political theme, the mind-jangling combats between the scowling, loin-clothed Heston and his well-turned-out ape captors, and its last-minute twist ending. Aside from Mark Wahlberg's blandly stoic marooned astronaut, the new "Planet" is well cast: Tim Roth as a murderous ape-demagogue, Helena Bonham Carter as the sexiest chimpanzee we'll ever see, and Heston in a hilarious uncredited cameo as a dying ape-patriarch terrified of guns. It also has the pop panache Burton put into his "Batman" movies. It's amusingly overscaled, goofy and grandiose and it has a shocker ending of its own, though not as satisfying as in the original.
It also has a hastier setup. We see Wahlberg's Capt. Leo Davidson leave his space station in 2029 to rescue a chimpanzee in a space pod, crash-land his own pod on a strange planet and then get swept up in an ape roundup of humans. Like Heston's truculent George Taylor whose most memorable line was, "Get your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!" Leo is stymied until he discovers liberal human-activist chimp Ari (Bonham Carter), who helps him escape with a few other human slaves (Kris Kristofferson as gnarly old Karubi and Estella Warren as his nubile daughter Daena) to join up with others.
The good guys include Ari's stalwart ex-soldier ape-servant Krull (Cary Hiroyuki Tagawa). And the bad guys are led by Roth's Thade, a maniac ape leader who lusts for Ari and hates humans, and Thade's massive gorilla sidekick, Attar (Michael Clarke Duncan). There's also a character the amusingly double-dealing slave seller Limbo (Paul Giamatti) who was probably modeled on Peter Ustinov's gladiator-school slave seller Lentulus in "Spartacus."
Burton's "Planet of the Apes" had me smiling all the way through even at its deliberately perverse surprise ending and one of the things in it that's the most fun is the incredible care and effort lavished on the apes. Done with actors in sculpted body suits and masks designed by ape virtuoso Rick Baker, these primates are smashingly lifelike. They crouch, climb, yowl banshee screeches, swing upside down and make great ecstatic leaps all completely in character. Unlike those delightful but comparatively stiff monkey suits and masks in the '68 film, the costumes and makeup here are so supple and expressive that we can accept the characters as living apes.
French writer Pierre Boulle wrote the 1963 novel on which both "Planets" are based, but the real authorial personality in the '68 film was Rod Serling, who gave it the dramatic irony, social commentary, noir comedy and surprise ending of a typical "Twilight Zone."
That first "Planet" is anti-war, anti-nuclear arms and anti-bigotry. The new one apes that political agenda, and it takes a lot of pokes at current establishment politics without the anti-nuclear message. (Indeed, this new film, in a way, is pro-armaments; they're Leo's equalizers. Unlike the original, the remake's apes have no rifles.)
I watched the original "Planet of the Apes" the night before I saw the new one, and in many ways I prefer Burton's. Not completely, though Wahlberg isn't as strong (or as volatile) a hero as Heston, nor is he as good as he was in "Boogie Nights" or "Three Kings." There's nothing to compare in the remake to the awesome mystery of director Franklin J. Schaffner's first trek through the seemingly abandoned, barren planet. The social message isn't as clearly drawn. And the new surprise ending doesn't carry the same satisfying jolt of the first. In fact, it's so illogical and off the wall that it may turn some audiences off.
But in other areas, especially visual ones, this new "Planet" is far superior. Burton is one of the few Hollywood directors who never lets a big budget overwhelm him, who keeps a sense of fun about his projects even when they're as commercially foredoomed as "Mars Attacks!" Though it obviously cost a lot of money ($100 million or so) I didn't resent the expenditure the way I did the obvious waste in this summer's overdressed pinhead spectaculars like "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider," digital shock-a-thons like "The Mummy Returns" or "Jurassic Park III," and exploding schmaltz monoliths like "Pearl Harbor."
Burton's movies lift your spirits, and no one lifts them higher here than Bonham Carter. All the acting in "Planet" has that tongue-in-cheek zest that Burton can inspire. But Bonham Carter, Roth and Giamatti stand out: Roth for his blood-freezing sadism and snarling energy, Giamatti for his memorably sleazy cowardice and con artistry, and Bonham Carter because she makes Ari such an unexpected charmer. In movies like "Room With a View" and "Wings of the Dove," she was an unexpectedly passionate presence; here she gives chimp Ari grace, elegance and sex appeal.
It's a blessing that excessive animatronics or digitization weren't inflicted on this film. Most of the time they aren't needed. Burton (and his team) imagines this simian-ruled world with the great goofy obsessive cartoonist's detail that is his hallmark, making this a real Saturday-afternoon special. This century's "Planet of the Apes" is a rouser, a screaming-banshee fun house.
"Planet of the Apes"
Directed by Tim Burton; written by William Broyles Jr., Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal; photographed by Philipe Rousselot; edited by Chris Lebenzon; production designed by Rick Heinrichs; music by Danny Elfman; produced by Richard D. Zanuck. A 20th Century Fox release; opens Friday, July 27. Running time: 1:50. MPAA rating: PG-13 (some sequences of action/violence).
Capt. Leo Davidson Mark Wahlberg
Thade Tim Roth
Ari Helena Bonham Carter
Attar Michael Clarke Duncan
Limbo Paul Giamatti
Daena Estella Warren
Karubi Kris Kristofferson
Krull Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa