Film and TV

Ape Escape

There are scenes in Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes redo that are so hysterical they drown out minutes' worth of dialogue that follow, which is hardly a knock. Indeed, the film is often so comical, so ridiculous in that self-aware, wink-wink sort of way, that it plays like a parody of the 1968 original, written by Rod Serling and Michael Wilson, who loosely based their screenplay on Pierre Boulle's novel. There, once more, is Charlton Heston -- only this time the poster boy for humanity is encased in ape makeup. He is a wizened old chimp, father of warrior-prince Thade (Tim Roth, his voice a rotten snarl) and keeper of the Great Secret that man once ruled the planet and kept apes as their slaves. But Heston's appearance is less an act of subversion than it is a playful jab at the past and at the man himself, especially his longstanding role as president of the National Rifle Association. "Their ingenuity," Heston tells Roth of the humans, "goes hand-in-hand with their cruelty." He then shouts a line he first uttered some 33 years earlier, and the audience, in appreciation and in disbelief, roars with him.

This incarnation is but a campy joke trapped in the world's longest chase sequence; it wants only to make you grin -- all the way to the Toys 'R' Us counter. It offers blanks and asks you to fill them in with your own knowledge of the series, which included a handful of half-brilliant, half-shlock sequels, a Saturday-morning cartoon and comic books. Neither a remake nor a sequel, it nonetheless refers to the original so often you'd think Fox was using Burton's film to sell the studio's revamped DVD collection. Lines once uttered by humans have now been placed in the mouths of apes, and Nova (the mute human played by Linda Harrison, who also makes a cameo) is now the name of a chimp; not only that, it's derivative of a dozen other films, from Star Trek: The Motion Picture to Mission:Impossible 2 to Braveheart, from which plotlines and action sequences have been entirely lifted. Texas Monthly founding editor William Broyles Jr., Lawrence Konnor and Mark Rosenthal are credited with the screenplay, but so many others could and should share the credit. There's not an original bone in this hairy body.

The plot, more or less, remains the same, even if the names and faces do not: Mark Wahlberg plays Leo Davidson, a scientist-warrior who has been training genetically spliced monkeys to pilot research vessels (hmmm...). When his monkey goes missing in an electronic storm that somehow manages to intercept transmissions from the future (ohhh....), Leo goes after him and winds up some 500 years from now, on a planet where humans exist solely to elude capture, lest they become the apes' pets and slaves. But Leo, unlike Heston's original Colonel Taylor, need not convince the apes he is intelligent; humans speak on this planet, even if they're given little to say (it took me thirty minutes to realize Estella Warren wasn't a mute). Leo wants only to escape and reach "Calima" -- the Forbidden Zone, which is said to be the birthplace of the ape race. There, Leo believes, he will find his shipmates and vessel and return to earth. Yeah, and monkeys can talk.

Still, this Planet of the Apes is perfectly acceptable and deliriously charming -- a goofy B-movie dolled up like a square-jawed A-list blockbuster. Unlike the 1968 version, it never drags, never bogs down in proselytizing, never moves in slow motion. There is no courtroom sequence to get in the way, no sly reference to the Scopes trial or the Vietnam War or the Black Power movement. If the original and its myriad sequels were meant to be read as cultural commentary, as Eric Greene insists in his 1996 book, Planet of the Apes as American Myth: Race, Politics, and Popular Culture, Burton's version is meant to be read as an advertisement for itself and its action figures.

When it does get around to addressing race, it does so in a jokey, postmodern way: "Why can't we all just get along?" asks orangutan Limbo, a smart-ass, cowardly slave trader played by Paul Giamatti. Giamatti, best known as Pig Vomit in Howard Stern's Private Parts, exists to offer comic relief, but the film is in no need of a laugh track; the audience yucks it up all through Danny Elfman's melodramatic score, itself a parody of actioner bleatings. The movie wants to be deep, with its tangential discourses on human rights and cultural encroachment, but it plays too shallow to leave any lasting mark. The monkeys talk a good game -- especially Helena Bonham Carter's Ari, a liberal chimp on a planet of warrior apes and a potential love interest for Leo, which somehow isn't as creepy as it sounds -- but they exist solely to gnash their teeth, lope at the speed of light and keep the humans down. It matters little that so many of the apes are played by African-American actors, including Michael Clarke Duncan as Attar, Thade's right-paw ape; the movie's about a race to the finish line, not a race war. Then again, one should never expect terribly much from a redo that seems to exist solely because it can be made to look better than the original. You can never be surprised -- or enlightened -- twice.

Speaking of which, Burton's version also comes with its own "shocker" finale -- its own Statue of Liberty -- but it has all the impact of a grain of sand falling to earth. It feels only like a tossed-off, tacked-on ending, and it nearly betrays all of the goodwill that the first 115 minutes engender. It disrupts the continuity of the movie and smacks of a franchise finale; it's a conclusion in search of a sequel, and it escorts the audience out of the theater with a shrug instead of a shock. It's enough to drive anyone apeshit.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky