How dare director Tim Burton "reimagine" (he avoids the word "remake") the
classic 1968 film Planet of the Apes? It's a milestone in sci-fi history, a
brilliant, many-layered social commentary, many Apes buffs would argue, and
its timing and essence can never be revivified.
Actually, it's been more than ripe for reimagining for years. It is
terribly hokey, it disses its source material, and its social commentary is at
best a hopeless hodgepodge and at worst a market-driven right-wing dissemblance.
The more you think about it, the less clear it becomes what the heck it's about.
At first glance, it's an antinuclear polemic--except that in the first of the
four sequels by the same producers, within the series' temporally circular
framework, the Charlton Heston character, Colonel George Taylor, the ostensible
voice of reason, turns out to be the man who pushes the button.
Can we agree that the film is about animal rights? No, that doesn't quite pan
out, either. Although Dr. Zira (Kim Hunter) is sympathetic to the humans, she
more crucially speaks for science; and on the Planet, scientific knowledge of the
humans is primarily advanced through experiments on their living brains.
ell then, it's about race, as Eric Greene articulately argues in his 1996
book Planet of the Apes as American Myth: Race, Politics, and Popular Culture.
Okay, but what about race? While the film's sequels became a weird genre
sidecar to blaxploitation pictures of the 1970s, the original could be
interpreted either as a dark, Swiftian reflection on human inequality or as a
dystopian vision of impending revolution (particularly if you buy into the
premise that in the orangutan-chimp-gorilla hierarchy, the prole and military
gorillas are coded representatives of African America). It's that second,
prophetic reading that fueled the people-power sequels as well as, on the other
side of the spectrum, the white supremacists who at rallies carried signs
equating the apes with the NAACP.
But the picture as an indictment of racial inequality also is a somewhat
rickety interpretation. Greene is convincing on the notion that the chimps are
stand-ins for Jews--based on, among other things, the script's pointed references
to quotas. (Co-scriptor Rod Serling inserted that element.) But the argument that
the gorillas are stand-ins for blacks is iffy. With their On the Waterfront
accents, they could just as easily be "read" as bluecollar workers.
Indeed, it's unclear whether blacks entered into the filmmakers' worldview any
more than women did. The only black human character, Taylor's fellow astronaut
Dodge (played by Jeff Burton), is not only quickly killed off but also stuffed
and mounted in a museum. And as Greene notes, the one attractive and presumably
intelligent woman, fellow astronaut Stewart (Dianne Stanley), dies and shrivels
up into an old mummy hag on the spaceship before the story really begins. The
other prominent female character, Nova (Linda Harrison, a former Miss Maryland),
is a mute in an animal-skin bikini.
Maybe the narrative stew just had too many cooks for a coherent
dish to emerge. For instance, Serling introduced the nuclear theme over the
objections of Pierre Boulle, author of Monkey Planet, the novel from which the
movie was adapted. And while Boulle's book was widely seen as a meditation on
human frailty and class consciousness, the film's producers at one point wanted to
play up Ape City as an example of a communist-controlled economy. For co-writer
Michael Wilson, who had been blacklisted in Hollywood, Taylor's tribunal may have
signified McCarthyism, but then it's also often compared to the Scopes monkey
The conspiratorially minded could contend that the film's creators
captured viewers of all ideologies by tricking them into thinking that Apes
is about their particular liberation when it is really about none. Regardless,
the movie's appeal is surely as visceral as it is intellectual. Many of its
elements are titillating taboo--bondage, voyeurism, exhibitionism, to name a
few--but, in context, are presented as outrageous ("Madness!"). Audiences could
have their cake and shun it too. As critic Michael Atkinson put it in Film
Comment, "The miracle of the Apes films is that such complex textual
issues dominate an otherwise preposterous manifestation of cheap trash
culture"--and such a combination couldn't be "recaptured in expensive remakes, no
matter how strenuous the effort."
Tim Burton's effort certainly looks strenuous--and the results,
while mixed, are ultimately disappointing. His best choice was to dip into
Boulle's whimsically existential text, somewhat in terms of plotting but more in
terms of tone and visual imagination. Boulle indulges in wonderfully giddy
descriptions of ape lovers walking through a park and then ascending into the
trees for greater intimacy, and of a scientific congress of apes clapping with all
four limbs. With the aid of top-notch makeup artist Rick Baker, stunt coordinator
Charles Croughwell, and movement expert Terry Notary, Burton brings similar
images to brilliant life. Production designer Rick Heinrichs has given Burton a
splendidly varied visual playground to work in, too, contrasting claustrophobic
jungles and ape cave dwellings of a civilized, organic grace with expansive
deserts and ripply volcanic wastelands.
With $100 million at his disposal, Burton has dressed everyone up, but
the script gives them no place to go. Screenwriters William Broyles, Jr.,
Lawrence Konner, and Mark D. Rosenthal have wisely chucked most of the unwieldy
political baggage of the 1968 film. (Orangutans, chimps, and gorillas are no
longer segregated by class and position.) And there are bare pegs of a mildly
intriguing story about the self as simultaneous savior and destroyer of one's
world. But instead of the richly searching fantasia they might have developed,
the writers have come up with a clunky tale of good and evil, executed with an
emphasis on mindless and repetitive violence. More terrifying than savage apes is
the thought of the millions of 10-year-olds who will clobber each other imitating
Burton's film is set in 2029, and the Heston role is now that of the somewhat
dim and distracted-looking Mark Wahlberg as Captain Leo Davidson, who, while
pursuing a beloved wayward test-pilot monkey, crash-lands you know where. Heston
has a much-hyped cameo as a dying chimp-sire whose legacy is a gun. The heavy is
the fabulous Tim Roth as the tic-ridden warlord chimp General Thade, sniffing and
snorting and literally bouncing off the walls with rage. The love interest,
instead of Nova, is an upper-crust, radical-chic chimp named Ari, played by
Helena Bonham Carter, whose mingled soft-spoken seductiveness and feral
assertiveness make for a memorable performance. The native humans, now granted
the ability to speak, might as well not have been, since all they do is gawk
worshipfully at Captain Davidson.
The apes are mesmerizingly powerful. They thwomp, grunt, and screech their way
through battles and elegant dinners alike and zing each other through the air
with crouching-tiger-hidden-chimp flamboyance. Unfortunately, they turn out to
have no other tricks--and the same is true of the film overall. There are the
requisite campy allusions to the original and some nice visual, vintage-Burton
ha-ha's (an old ape with a hairpiece and dentures, for example, and a
nymphomaniac chimp couple who bring sexual foreplay to, well, new heights). But
while offering some much-needed relief from the headache-inducing pummeling,
these gags end up obscuring the dazzling uniqueness of the primate principals.
Though Burton could have done so much more, he only makes the point that--in
the words of Boulle's hero, Ulysse Mèrou--"well-trained animals might well
have...become expert in all the human arts, including the art of cinematography."
But because of thin summer competition, Planet of the Apes is a major hit (it
took in $68 million the first weekend), with sequels and theme-park rides sure to
follow. Burton has forgone the heavy-handed message-movieing of the original
but--in emphasizing conflict over vision--has plunked down in its place an equally
heavy-handed commercial bombast. If the purpose behind the 1968 film is
irresolute, the goal here is sadly clear: a box-office killing.