Wednesday 8 July 2015

Planet Of The Apes (2001 version)

The Apening

Planet Of The Apes
USA 2001
Directed by Tim Burton
20th Century Fox Zone B Blu Ray

Warning: There are spoilers in this one folks.

I think I might be right in saying that this was the first mainstream Hollywood film to use and publicise the word “reimagining”... a term we all pretty much hated at the time and that, I think, has finally died down. Burton was apparently insistent that the term be used due to the fact that he didn’t consider what he was doing to be a remake of the original film (reviewed here) and, also, because it still didn’t follow the course of the original novel, Pierre Boulle’s Monkey Planet.

In actual fact, the film is further away from the way the premise is presented in the original novel than the previous version but, although it's less to do with evolution and more to do with either inadvertently or deliberately manipulating time, the end of the movie is closer to the novel, in some ways, than Rod Serling’s much celebrated and deservedly more popular Twilight Zone style ending involving the Statue Of Liberty.*

That being said, I was always somewhat disappointed in this version, especially on this rewatch and considering it’s by an artist of Burton’s pedigree... mainly because it just generally seems to get a bit dull from around the mid-way point. But there are also a lot of really good things about the movie too so... let’s take a look at this thing.

The film abandons the original premise of a long trip with suspended animation and instead gives us a group of scientists in a space station sending out trained monkeys to pilot little capsules and bring back data from an anomaly they are parked near. Indeed, Burton manages a nice little piece of “rug pullery” when we realise that the pilot at the start of the movie is a) in a simulator and b) a chimpanzee.

Mark Wahlburg plays Leo, the equivalent of Heston’s Taylor in the first movie, but he’s a different kind of hero and although he’s a sensible chap, because the apes are made out to be so powerful and physically dextrous in this version, there’s no way he’s ever gonna really beat one in a fair fight. I think this may be one of the reasons this movie didn’t quite hit the right note with audiences when it was first released... because the main protagonist is constantly having to be rescued and always seems so vulnerable... he just doesn’t seem to hit the right “hero” notes that Heston did in the original. This is not necessarily Marky Mark’s fault, though, and he’s always seemed to me to be a fine actor... I just don’t think the character works as well as written, given the intense environment into which he is plunged.

Anyway, the space station is hit with all kinds of disruption coming through the anomaly and Leo’s favourite monkey is sent out in a pod to investigate. When he disappears into the anomaly, Leo disobeys orders and goes out in another capsule after him... also disappearing in the process. I should probably note here that it’s fairly well established in these opening moments that the capsules presumably don’t retain oxygen because both the monkey and Leo have to wear a space suit and helmet to go out in the pod. Plant that away in your memory for a short while... I’ll come back to it later.

When Leo crash lands on the Planet Of The Apes, the realisation of the new environment he finds himself in is not as gradually or intensely done as in the original movie. I’m assuming Burton jettisoned certain things because of the audience already knowing exactly what the plot of the original is and so, this movie’s variation of the hunt sequence is done and dusted within minutes of Leo’s arrival and it’s not long before he is escaping from his captors... including Tim Roth as main bad guy General Thade. He fleas in the company of a group of humans including a half hearted but sexy attempt at love interest for Mark Wahlburg’s totally disinterested character, Daena, as played by Estella Warren, plus three apes including Helena Bonham-Carter’s amazing turn as Ari and the always astonishing Paul Giamatti as Limbo.

One of the main problems with this film is that all the humans can speak and are pretty articulate... which is a very definite deviation from the original movie and which, I think, doesn’t help things in terms of the logic of the movie. I can understand that Burton might not have wanted to take the time to set up a way of communicating with the humans due to the dense amount of material to get through (this movie is actually slightly longer than the original as it is) but the established fact in this version that the humans outnumber the ape population and are all quite articulate begs the question as to why they’ve remained in captivity all these years... even with the apes’ greater strength. And there are other curiosities which this state of affairs brings into question... like the scarecrows seen at one point, used to try and discourage the humans from straying into places the apes don’t want them to. It’s the humans that explain why the scarecrows are there to Leo... so it’s quite obvious this is an absolute nonsense attempt as a long established deterrent on the part of the apes... doesn’t make a hell of a lot of sense, does it?

After this, we have a bunch of humans converging on the source of the signal which Leo is tracking, leading him into the basic conundrum of the movie... the fact that the world here has been created by his colleagues and their trained monkeys going through the anomaly and crash landing at a point many centuries before he even got here... thus leading to the rise of the apes. There’s also a point when an army of humans gather to help Leo and he becomes an almost Christ-like figure to them... which is interesting but remains unexplored mostly... I think one of the problems with this movie is that there’s too much subtext getting in the way of the direct route from A to B.

Then we have a real problem after Leo’s monkey arrives days after him... which makes perfect sense within the logic of the anomaly but, hell, makes a lot less sense when Leo uses the pod to return home without actually needing a space suit or helmet at this point. Pardon? It was shown twice in the first quarter of an hour of the film that a spacesuit and helmet were needed when piloting one of these things through space... so why have the laws of physics changed by this end sequence?

So let’s get to that ending then. Now, readers of the novel will know that, while both adaptations of this novel change a lot of stuff... Burton’s ending is a lot closer to the original. There’s a piece of design of the crashed spaceship Leo finds in the desert that makes it look like the head piece of the Statue of Liberty when viewed from certain angles. Now I think that was both a visual homage to the original movie and also, I would guess, since some photos of this were released well before the movie came out, something to deter the speculation on sites like Ain’t It Cool News that this movie would have a radically different ending to the first. As soon as we all saw those first photos we all thought... hey, there’s the Statue Of Liberty. However, this really is just a design thing and in this version, just like in the book, the Earth really isn’t the Planet Of The Apes at all...

In the novel, when the main protagonist makes the long, suspended animation return trip to Earth, he finds himself returned to another planet with the apes as the dominant culture and the penny drops that, contrary to popular belief, apes actually evolved from man and, in the time it’s taken him to get back, the same thing has happened on the planet Earth in his absence. Burton jettisons the evolutionary aspect and has Mark Wahlburg’s character return to an ape infested Earth, but in this one it’s made pretty clear that this is because the ape villain General Thade has arrived on Earth before Leo did and altered the course of human history.

Now a lot of people didn’t understand this when the movie first came out but, frankly, I’ll say what I said then, again, now... it makes perfect sense. In the movie we saw that the later you go through the temporal anomaly, the earlier you arrive. The monkey went through a few seconds before Leo and took a few days to arrive after him. Leo’s colleagues went through a number of hours, perhaps even days after he did, and arrived hundreds of years before him. So, assuming the exact same rules apply for a trip back through the anomaly, rather than a reversal of the rules, if Thade somehow managed to learn the secrets of the wrecked technology years after Leo left and went through the same anomaly, then he would have arrived many centuries before Leo and that is obviously what must have happened here. Makes perfect sense... one of the few things that does in this movie.

Despite all the drops in logic, the movie is a fairly a solid and diverting entertainment, for the most part... but it’s also a bit flat. The story itself is less than well written, I believe, but the dialogue is top notch with some beautiful rivalry between the two female leads as they play off against each other for Leo’s attention. Searing lines like “He’s the canary, that’s the coalmine.” when talking about launching the monkey into the heart of the distortion is very sharp and there are a lot of lines which are witty and economical, cutting to the heart of the matter, throughout.

There are also a lot of jokes such as an ape organ grinder with a little performing human, which is exactly the kind of humour I would expect from Tim Burton, who mostly does a good job with this movie. Not too mention quite a few sly references for fans of both the Apes series of films and of science fiction in general. For example, the first time you hear an ape talk it says, “Take you hands off me you damn dirty human” in direct parody of Charlton Heston’s famous line in the first movie. Heston himself, playing an ape for the first time in the form of General Thade’s dad, gets to parody his own last line in the original movie as he dies in this one... “Damn them. Damn them all to hell.” There’s also a bit of a humorous irony which I’m sure, given Heston’s personal politics, Burton took great relish in exploiting, by having Heston’s character the only ape in the movie to possess a firearm. And there’s even a quick excerpt from the original (and best) version of The Day The Earth Stood Still in an incoming transmission of anomaly distortion seen in the opening sequences of the movie.

One of the best things about this movie is the score. Jerry Goldsmith’s music to the original was an extremely important and groundbreaking score in it’s orchestration and when I heard about this version being made I thought it was a pretty thankless task because, whoever landed the gig was going to find themselves compared to the classic Goldsmith and they would find that a particularly hard shadow to escape. Being that it’s a Tim Burton film I assumed he would try and get his regular collaborator Danny Elfman but I just couldn’t see Elfman wanting to do it. The original score is such a colossal work. As it happens, Elman’s score here is completely different and, although he does go in for highlighting the percussion in some sections, as you would expect from an Apes score, he does it in a totally different way to any of the previous Apes composers and it holds up as a really appropriate and way more than competent piece in its own right. Which surprised the hell out of me, I can tell you. It’s truly not nearly as important or experimental as Goldsmith’s offering but it’s a real asset to the movie and an equally important score in Elfman’s own body of work, I believe.

All in all, and for the reasons I’ve described above, Tim Burton’s Planet Of The Apes is not the most successful “reimagining” in film history, but it is as inventive as you would expect from an artist of Burton’s capabilities and has some great performances in it which really lift it a bit more than some of the previous efforts. It’s certainly better than Battle For The Planet of The Apes and at least as good, perhaps a little better, than Beneath The Planet of The Apes. A fascinating science fiction/fantasy film which might have built a second franchise on it if it had been a little more critically well received and, presumably, did a little better at the box office. Not exactly the best out of the films but certainly not the worst either and it at least helped pave the way for general audience acceptance that there could, once again, be more Apes movies. So far it’s been up hill for the franchise again, since this stand alone movie.

It has come to light since I wrote this review that Serling did not come up with the idea for the famous Statue Of Liberty reveal. Click on my review link below of the book Simians and Serialism for more details.

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