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Planet of the Apes   C+

20th Century Fox

Year Released: 2001
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Tim Burton
Writers: William Broyles Jr., Lawrence Konner, Mark D. Rosenthal (based on the novel by Pierre Boulle)
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Tim Roth, Helena Bonham Carter, Michael Clarke Duncan, Estella Warren, Paul Giamatti, David Warner, Kris Kristofferson, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa.

Review by Rob Vaux

When Michael Clarke Duncan delivered his first line in Planet of the Apes, I thought I was going to love this film. His band of gorilla soldiers had just driven a band of humans from the jungle to be enslaved. As one the captives pleadingly brushed against his foot, he looked down and snarled, "Get your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty human!"

The reverse quote, lifted from the 1968 original, neatly sums up the philosophy of Tim Burton, whose affiliation with outsiders has produced some of the most striking films of the last 15 years. This is not a director who favors the chiseled good looks of classical leading men. Give him the freaks, the mutants, the lonely misfits in the corner. Give him the fanged gorilla, the screeching chimp, the hairy orangutan. Give him Michael Clarke Duncan in a fright mask over any Calvin Klein model anywhere. And keep your stinking paws off, if you please.

Planet of the Apes would seem to be a natural fit for him -- a chance to throw Marky Mark and Estella Warren in a cage while grinning simians poke at them with sticks. At times, you can feel his glee, the iconoclastic joy he takes in creating such a topsy-turvy world. During those times, the movie soars like few others, easily matching its landmark predecessor for satire, drama, and philosophical musing. Would that it could sustain such brilliance for more than a few seconds at a time.

Like the original film, this Planet involves a hunky American astronaut (Mark Wahlberg), trapped on a world where intelligent apes hold power over savage humans. Burton throws his usual energy into developing the landscape, evoking the previous Ape movies while retaining his own distinctive style. The makeup effects, by Burton regular Rick Baker, are unparalleled, and the set designers take care to fill all the nooks and crannies with plenty of interesting material.

True to form, the apes are the film's real stars. While Wahlberg makes a decent enough hero, the rest of the human actors are dull, two-dimensional, and lifeless. Burton's energy clearly focuses on the monkeys, from Helena Bonham Carter's "human rights" activist Ari to Tim Roth's magnificently sinister General Thade (I suspect he took the role just so he could put "evil chimp" on his resume). Actor Paul Giamatti almost steals the show as a grungy orangutan slave trader, and there's a delightful cameo that will leave fans of the first film chuckling. The simian roles are all unusually well-developed, and Burton has a great time playing their traditional character traits against their instinctive beast-like behavior. The apes are more, well, ape-like than the original film, hooting at each other, hanging by their toes, and generally acting as they would in the wild, despite their obvious sophistication. Here Planet of the Apes often hits its stride, taking shots at the human foibles hidden below the surface. Carter's character has the marvelous sheen of a limousine liberal, for example, and there's a shot involving a little girl in a cage that sent chills down my spine.

Unfortunately, as delightful as these bits are, they don't add up to anything significant. Plot has never been Burton's strong point, and he doesn't seem to know where to go with his tasty set-up. After struggling mightily to establish the proper tone, he loses his nerve in the film's second half, and the last 45 minutes rapidly descend into cliché-ridden good guy/bad guy stuff. The film's early promise grows tarnished and underused, leaving the sour tang of lost potential. One sequence in particular screams out for a sharp satirical jab, but can't manage anything more than weak sentimentality. Burton tries to compensate for the lost punch with a whiplash ending that completely derails. Though it goes back to the wellspring for its premise (the concept comes from Pierre Boulle's novel) and remains true to the rest of the film, Burton fails to put any thought into it beyond the admittedly stunning visuals. It hangs on a plot hole so large you could drive a freight train through it and leaves far too many questions unanswered. Its would-be shock remains a pale shadow of the legendary original.

That, in the end, may be Planet of the Apes' biggest burden. Though it comes close sometimes, it simply can't fill the shoes left by its predecessor. Without more thoughtfulness, its potent themes go unused, something the earlier version never had a problem with. There's a lot to like about Planet of the Apes, and I once again find myself struggling with Flipside's grading system. Burton is a unique director; even in failure, his efforts have merit. Indeed, there are elements here that shouldn't be missed for all the world. But despite some wonderful moments, this Planet of the Apes isn't going to make anyone forget Charlton Heston sinking to his knees in the surf. Considering the caliber of the filmmaker, that's a damned dirty shame.

Review published 07.30.2001.

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