It's a daunting task for any filmmaker to try an remake a film that most consider a sci-fi classic. The 1968 "Planet Of The Apes" (IMDb listing) has amassed a huge following of zealous fans who fight any change to their beloved film. Yet to compare the 1968 "Apes" to the new 2001 remake (or reimagining) is like comparing apples and oranges. The first film was but only a pinkie toe dipped into the pool of possibilities for this story. The new version is more a full-on belly flop into the deep end.
In the near future, Leo (Mark Wahlberg) is a tough, slightly dim Air Force cadet stationed on a space station gliding throughout the galaxy. In charge of the chimps used as test pilots for dangerous missions, Leo is distressed when his prized pupil is sent into an electrical vortex and is never heard from again. Not accepting the loss, Leo commandeers one of the space pods and blasts away after his monkey friend. Sent through time and space, Leo crash lands on a mysterious planet ruled by apes. Imprisoned and enslaved by the evil General Thade (Tim Roth), Leo finds solace in a human-sympathizing chimpanzee named Ari (Helena Bonham Carter), and a band of captive humans (including Kris Kristofferson and Estella Warren) that are looking to Leo to lead them in revolt against the apes.
The 1968 original was hailed in its time for detailed special effects and groundbreaking makeup. The film has stood the test of time even after four miserable sequels. The primates presented in 1968 were icons of power; they stood upright, and only a thin layer of rubber divided the chimp from the actor. For this new version, it's a whole new ape in director Tim Burton's vision for this franchise. Burton chooses to reinstate the simian instincts and behaviors. The ape characters don't just interact with one another, they screech, paw each other, and hang from the ceilings in mid-conversation. It's an absolute riot to behold. The chaos of this ape society brings back loving memories of taking trips to the zoo as a child and watching the monkeys go completely nuts in each other's presence, then being told that this behavior was normal. The apes have perfect order to their society, but for Leo and the audience, it's monkey madness.
Helping to sell the magic is Rick Baker and his phenomenal makeup designs. These are not just actors playing make believe, these appear to be actual walking and talking apes. Stepping miles ahead of the 1968 original in technology and hindsight, Burton and Baker's apes are a majestic creation and go a long way to helping the rest of the picture remain palatable. As equally convincing in opening the scope of the film is Danny Elfman's luminous score. In a perfect world, Elfman's score (his best in ages) will be recognized at next year's Oscars.
Storywise? Well, that's another matter entirely. Both versions lack a true narrative thrust considering their ripe possibilities. 1968's "Apes" was deliberate in its pacing, as it had a kicker ending to fall back on. 2001's "Apes" isn't entirely concerned with a twist ending, so the dead spots on the limp plot aren't supported by that same anticipated conclusion. The modern "Apes" is an action film, favoring heaps of stunts over logic and a strong tale. It does not take place on Earth, thus neutering the thrill that many will be expecting. There is one dinner scene, as the apes gather to try and discuss human civility, that reminded me of the 1968 version, but mostly Burton has the characters leaping around, beating their chests violently.
As our hero, Leo, Wahlberg has some impressive shoes to fill. Taking over the lead role (but not the same character) from previous ape-hunter Charleton Heston (who cameos here as an ape elder), Wahlberg struts and poses nicely for the camera, but gone is the charm that was evidenced in "Boogie Nights" and more recently in "The Yards." Wahlberg hardens himself, almost becoming a true action figure hero. And maybe this is by design. To reduce Wahlberg to grimacing and delivering terrible lines wondering about the origin of the "talkin' monkeys," "Apes" missed a prime opportunity to use Wahlberg as he should always be used: sparingly.
More successful are the ape actors. They obviously have more to play with than Wahlberg, Estella Warren, or any human character, yet their commitment to the monkey mindsetno matter how humiliating it looks from time to timeis refreshing. Helena Bonham Carter beats them all as the sympathetic ape who has a small crush on Leo. A daring actress regardless, Carter now has to contend with delivering Shakespearean-type monologues on the nature of human souls while straying periodically to shriek like the chimp that she is. That alone is worth the price of admission.
Included more to satisfy fans than to sate the story requirements, Burton has implemented an all-new twist ending to the fresh "Apes." Long gone is the nuked-out Earth and the Statue Of Liberty. This time around, it's something a little more sneaky and a lot less interesting. Of course I wouldn't dare reveal what happens, but the addition of a surprise conclusion to a film that was leaning toward a fair and uncluttered climax put the faint taste of sequel in my mouth, and I didn't like the flavor.
For "Planet Of The Apes" purists, this new reconstruction shouldn't cause fanboy insomnia in those slavish to the 1968 version. It lacks the original's regal atmosphere and initial sucker punch to the gut, yet on its own, it's good mass entertainment that finds its own pleasures deep within the ape world.
Filmfodder Grade: B+