The Moviehunter

Pulp Culture
New 'Planet of the Apes' is
all action and no thought

August 2, 2001
By Franklin Harris

"Planet of the Apes" is probably the best action movie of what so far has been a lackluster summer. But it is still only a mediocre remake of a science-fiction classic.

We expect more from its director, Tim Burton, whose resume includes 1999's excellent "Sleepy Hollow" and 1994's "Ed Wood," for which Martin Landau won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

There is little of Burton evident here. "Planet of the Apes" looks as if anyone could have directed it.

Normally, Burton populates his films with freaks and outcasts. Even the characters in his "Batman" movies come across as weird, distorted echoes of their comic-book alter egos. But everyone in "Planet of the Apes" needs a personality transplant, especially the nominal outsider, astronaut Leo Davidson, played flat by former rapper Mark Wahlberg.

The movie opens in the near future. Leo, who wants to explore the universe, is instead stuck training chimpanzees to pilot space probes.

But when one of the chimps disappears into a spatial anomaly straight out of "Star Trek: Voyager," Leo steals a pod and goes looking for him.

This, of course, allows Leo to get caught up in the anomaly and hurled through time and space, eventually landing thousands of years in the future on a planet ruled by apes.

No surprises so far. The name of the movie is "Planet of the Apes," after all.

On this planet, humans are nothing more than slaves. But that at least makes them better off than the mute savages in the 1968 version.

Where the first film reversed the roles of man and beast in order to say something about human nature, Burton's film seems, if anything, to be saying something about race relations.

It's hard to tell. Apart from a few cheap shots at conservatives, the remake has little in the way of politics and ideas. Of course, given Hollywood's political tendencies, that is probably all for the best.

It isn't long before the apes capture Leo and several other humans and take them back to the apes' city in the heart of a jungle.

Once there, Leo meets a chimpanzee named Ari, played by Helena Bonham Carter.

Ari is a human rights activist, and she rescues Leo and a human woman named Daena, played by model-turned-actress Estella Warren.

I say model-turned-actress, but Estella is really just a model. She is there for male audience members to gawk at, and she fills that role marvelously. But she doesn't really act, which is why all of the sexual tension is between Leo and Ari.

In fact, most of the human characters do little but stand around.

The actors portraying the apes had to go to "ape school" to learn how to walk and move like chimpanzees and gorillas. Unfortunately, no one thought to send the other actors to "human school" to learn how not to act like potted plants.

Anyway, Leo also comes to the attention of a power-hungry general named Thade, played by Tim Roth.

Roth's Thade is the exact opposite of Wahlberg's Leo. Thade throws violent tantrums and seems always in the midst of a drugged-out frenzy. Roth turns his performance all the way up to 11.

Thade suspects there is something unusual about Leo, and he soon comes to fear that Leo threatens all of ape civilization.

The threat becomes real when Leo, Ari and Daena escape into the Forbidden Zone, which holds the secrets of the apes' origins.

There are some good things going on in "Planet of the Apes." The action sequences are exciting, and the make-up effects by Rick Baker are stunning. The physical realism of the ape characters is the one area in which the remake outshines the original.

But the remake lacks all of the original's wit and depth.

Of course, the 1968 version, directed by Franklin Schaffnerr ("Patton"), boasts a script co-written by "Twilight Zone" creator Rod Serling, and that is a bit hard to top.

Serling and co-writer Michael Wilson ("Lawrence of Arabia") gave us memorable lines and characters with multifaceted personalities. Hes- ton's Taylor hates humans just as much as the apes do. And the ape leader, Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans), is hardly the one-note bad guy (bad ape?) Thade is. Zaius has legitimate motivations, whether we agree with them or not.

The best the three credited screenwriters on the remake can give us is one ape paraphrasing Barry Goldwater and another quoting Rodney King.

We don't even get much exploration of the Leo/Ari relationship, which would at least have been daring.

So, if all you want is a summer action movie, see the new "Planet of the Apes." But, if you want something more, you're better off renting the 1968 original.

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