[box cover]

Planet of the Apes (2001)

Fox Home Video

Starring Mark Wahlberg, Esella Warren, Tim Roth,
Michael Clarke Duncan, Helena Bonham Carter,
Kris Kristopherson, and Paul Giamatti

Written by William Broyles Jr., Lawrence Konner,
and Mark D. Rosenthal
Based on a novel by Pierre Boule

Directed by Tim Burton

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Review by Damon Houx                    

But First, a Quick History Lesson

Will there be a footnote in film history about how afraid Hollywood was of the supposed strikes by the Writer's, Director's and Actor's Guilds that were going to commence by summer 2001 — and how horrible movies became for a spell as a result?

There should be: Though it was narrowly averted, the film industry was battening down its hatches for one of the largest and possibly longest strikes in Hollywood history. The outcome of these fears was that many major studios started stockpiling product — greenlighting movies that could have used another draft or two, all to make sure the studios had films to churn out if the strikes went on as long as executives feared.

Now, like an overzealous family preparing for Y2K, the studios have an ultimately useless bomb shelter, well-stocked with crappy rations. It's a major explanation why so much that's come out in 2001 has been so bad.

Franchise pictures like Tomb Raider, Jurrasic Park III and Planet of the Apes were fast-tracked — hurried onscreen to make sure everyone could start shooting the big Summer 2002 films, ASAP. Planet of the Apes was at least a little more promising than its peers: It had been in development hell for about 10 years, with James Cameron, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Oliver Stone attached at one point or another. Still, desperate to beat the strike, Fox went with what they had for the new version, and this may explain why Tim Burton's 2001 remake — oh wait, excuse moi — "re-imagining" of Planet of the Apes sucks.

The Plot

Taking only minute details and occasional lines from its (superior) predecessor, Apes 2001 stars Mark Wahlberg as Capt. Leo Davidson — a cocky astronaut working on a space station with a bunch of genetically engineered chimps. Though he feels the animals shouldn't be flying spaceships if humans are available, when one monkey is sent out into a storm and goes off the radar, Leo — feeling that "you should never send a monkey to do a man's job" — chases after the animal, only to be sucked into some sort of Trek-esque black hole and landing on the nearest planet.

No sooner is he out of his ship than walkin', talkin', fightin' apes — led by the human-hating General Thade (Tim Roth) — quickly capture him. The apes keep humans as pets and slaves, and Davidson heads for a quick sale — but he and cute tribal human Daena (Estella Warren) are purchased by a human-rights acitvist chimp named Ari (Helena Bonham Carter).

Still determined to find a way home, Davidson flees with Ari, her servant Krull (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), and several human slaves. In the process, Davidson becomes a rebel leader, is romanced by alpha females Daena and Ari, and mounts an army to fight legions commanded by Thade and his right-hand ape Attar (Michael Clarke Duncan).

The Director

Normally, Tim Burton is a director with strong authorial voice who lets you know you're in his fantasy world. Known for his oddball-but-sweet efforts (Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands) — and his surprising ability to be "quirky" yet still work in mainstream Hollywood — Burton began his career as a Disney animator, then found success with his first film (Pee Wee's Big Adventure) — that led to bigger and better things, including being put in charge of the Batman franchise. At his worst, Burton is a set decorator masquerading as director; as his best, he can create dreamlands.

And so one anticipates a Burtonized Planet of the Apes. But what's most disappointing about his "re-imagining" is how free it feels of the Burton touch. Outside of a cast member or two (ex-girlfriend Lisa Marie and Glenn Shadix make appearances) and some out of place camp, the film feels generic (to put it nicely; dull would be another word; so would listless), a charge that couldn't be leveled at his previous lesser efforts. Most of the major players involved — even Michael Clarke Duncan — have said the reason they got involved with the project was because of Burton; maybe they're trying to shift the blame. Possibly the film's only "Burtonesque" touches are Ari's flirtatious, bestial behavior and a shot of a little girl in a cage that's pretty creepy. Otherwise, this is mostly a straight action film that's more about chases, warring monkeys, and cool monkey makeup. And hiring Burton to helm straight action scenes is a bit like hiring Michael Bay to adapt an E.M. Forester novel.

The Stars

Mark Wahlberg has had a good career so far with two key performances (in Three Kings and Boogie Nights) assuring that he will called Mark and not Marky. Wahlberg was part of a leading-man shuffle that included Matt Damon (and at moments Wahlberg looks like Damon), and perhaps because of it, his character couldn't be blander; Wahlberg may be good, but he rarely brings something to a part other than an affability that's denied him here, and at no point does he generate sympathy. Of the other humans, model-turned-actress Estella Warren brings about as much presence to her glorified-cavegirl role as a really nice futon.

But even under heavy make up, it's no surprise that the apes are more interesting and dynamic (they were in the first film as well). Helena Bonham Carter's Ari may make little dramatic sense, but Carter sure plays the hell out of her chimp chanteuse, while Tim Roth hams it up as Thade, making one wish Wahlberg would have played off of Roth's enthusiasm. Unfortunately, the film is saddled with a comic-relief slave-trading orangutan (played by Paul Giamatti) who's meant to be light and funny but is neither. In supporting parts Duncan, David Warner, Glen Shaddix (in the film's most impressive make up), and Lisa Marie all look interesting, but it makes one wish the film was more about them than the damn dirty humans.

The section where this writer comments on the differences between the two versions

For many the 1968 Planet of the Apes is a masterpiece, and though that might be too generous a description, it is an interesting — albeit limited — parable film that is more about the condition of racism, Darwinism, and nuclear culture than about space travel or warring monkeys (would you like to know more? Then read esteemed colleague Alexandra DuPont's take on the earlier films). As with most good-to-great sci-fi, there are meaty ideas at the heart of the project, and though the whole point of the endeavor is to talk in coded terms about "what's going on in the world," the film makes narrative sense and all the pieces fit together; even if you guess the first film's "surprise ending," the conclusion is still chilling.

What the first film had, that this film sorely lacks, is an interesting story. By removing the setting from Earth — because that was the "twist" ending of the original and has been spoiled by many parodies and that awful video boxcover-art — the new film shoots itself in the foot. Burton's version is high-concept franchise filmmaking at its worst, where one idea ("we've got apes and name recognition") substitutes for a plot and everything is made easily sequel- and toy-friendly. This may explain why there are more plot holes and non sequiters than the worst of the original Apes series (for more on the plot holes see below).

By taking away the Earth context the Apes' culture becomes nonsensical: In the original it was a scavenger society building on the ruins of a pre-existent one; in the new film it's not organic enough. This also screws up the whole ape/human relationship that was turned completely topsy-turvy in the original. If both can communicate, it's hard to believe that: A) the humans would become oppressed by the apes; B) the apes would totally deny their talents — I mean, they do have opposable thumbs, so they'd have to be good for something; and C) the humans would be so weak and dumb. To make sense of the film, you have to assume that every single human character is a chucklehead.

And though it dances around the race card, it never plays it except when all the species-isms are addressed by the one black character (tres PC!). What's most disappointing about Apes 2001 is that it brings nothing new to this well-established universe — serving only to re-interpret the old version poorly, removing any political context and adding nothing to the mythology. If it ain't broke, why fix it? (Oh yeah — big paychecks: The film did earn, on a $100 million budget, $179 million domestically and as much internationally.)

Of course you'd say it sucks in comparison, but does it have any merits of its own?

This is the 21st century Apes, and perhaps it is too much to ask a teenage audience to know something about films from 30 years previous. Seriously. The film does boast modest pleasures. It isn't filmed with the frantic commercial cutting-styles and high-gloss cinematography of, say, Simon West or Dominic Sena. Cinematographer Phillippe Rouselot's work is excellent, as is the color palette — making it one of the best-looking summer blockbusters in a long time. Though Rouselot can't hide the difference between what's shot on a stage and location, both settings look equally good. The score by Danny Elfman is one of his best in a while; it's chaotic, rousing, and free from too many Elfmanisms.

But if anything walks away from this film unscarred, it's Rick Baker's wondrous make-up effects. Baker's been in the industry since 1971's Schlock and has constantly done inventive work (most notably the on-screen transformation in An American Werewolf in London). His work is excellent — virtually guaranteed an Academy Award. The effort spent on all things ape — from movement to fighting — is top-notch. And the special effects are, of course, excellent. (The extras on this DVD spend a large chunk of time talking about both.)

But make-up, score, and cinematography do not a good movie make. Sure, action films don't have to leave you with too much other than an adrenaline aftertaste, but Apes 2001 fails even here — the action scenes never excite, shifting focus to the impressive makeup and a plotless middle hour consisting of Davidson and crew running away or around, free of any context. Not helping any is the terrible script, featuring some of the hoariest clichés in action (Want an example? A young child who wants to fight is told not to by Davidson, then disobeys orders but falls off his horse, only to be rescued — at the very last second — by Davidson. Huzzah!) Burton may still be an animator at heart, and without a personality to anchor the film (as Heston did in 1968) or a interesting screenplay (credited to three writers, and more than likely filtered through countless rewrites), the film is never more than a makeup and special-effects Oscar reel. It's far less entertaining than The Simpsons' musical Apes parody. Ouch.

The Super Secret Silly Surprise Ending

A subject of much hullyballoo when it was spoiled by Matt Drudge, the new ending tries to top or equal the twist ending of the original film — but unfortunately the new ending is so random and forced that even if you know it, it doesn't spoil the movie; it has no relevance to anything that preceded it. The only way I could sensibly understand this ending was to assume that the filmmakers hated the Davidson character, and — much like Sam Raimi did Ash in the original ending of Army of Darkness — wanted to humiliate him for being such an idiot. But this isn't contextualized.

It all boils down to Burton, who was more than likely hired because of his success with Batman, and because he seems as weird as the material. But Burton does Fantasy well, not Science Fiction, and therein lays the rub, as Fantasy doesn't have to be grounded — the inexplicable is expected — where sci-fi has to be. Ironically, because it is so odd, the ending is the most intriguing element in a film that's greatest claim to fame may be its pop-culturizing of the phrase "re-imagining." How proactive.

Things in Planet of the Apes 2001 that make no sense

What about the disc, are there any goodies?

Glad you asked. Like most major releases these days, the Apes 2001 two-DVD set is loaded with all the bells and whistles that seem to come with any release that a company is trying to break record sales with its release. Much like a fat slob in a Porsche Boxster, you can't hide the content with good packaging, but you also can't blame the car manufacturer — and this is a sweet ride. The film is presented in a pristine anamorphic widescreen transfer in its original aspect ratio (2.35:1) running 120 minutes, which the box mislabels as 124. The film also sounds excellent in its 5.1 Dolby Digital and DTS mixes, but that the film has such a flashy presentation should be no surprise as it was released theatrically only four months before the DVD came out.

The extras on Disc One are pretty time consuming, and the work done on them is impressive — the producers of this DVD may actually convince you you've seen a better movie than you have once you've made your way through them. On Disc One, there are two audio commentaries, one with director Tim Burton, the second with composer Danny Elfman, who speaks along side the isolated score. Burton is normal mumbly self, and while those looking for plot solutions will be disappointed, this may be his best commentary yet, and he does actually seem to be talking about the movie. Elfman's track is also quite good, but sometimes he talks over the music cues, which is unfortunate. There is an "enhanced viewing option" that plays throughout the movie, where interview vignettes pop up throughout and a decal is displayed so you can jump "white-rabbit" style to effects-work. Also included are cast and crew bios, and within the actor section are some of the performers first auditions (Estella Warren is oustandingly awful). There are also Nuon enhanced features, A THX Optimizer, at least one Easter egg, and DVD-ROM content.

Disc Two features the motherlode of extras, which are broken into six sections with a monkey pointing at each section in that gorgeous-but-over-elaborate way we've come to expect from DVDs (the impatient viewer, such as your humble reviewer, would appreciate a dry menu that would take less time to navigate, but fears he is alone in this). In Section One, there are six behind-the-scenes documentaries:

Also in this section is screen-test footage, which covers make-up, group, costume, movement, and stunt tests. Each of these (outside of movement) is broken into four frames with four audio tracks that are shown concurrently, where you can shuffle through the different audios.

Section Two offers multi-angle featurettes covering four scenes from the film. Each section is broken up into little smaller sections, with either two or three frames with changeable audio and allows access to pertinent production art, screenplay excerpts and the final footage. This section is very impressive, similar to something done on the Fight Club DVD that gives you a chance to watch a director direct, which I'm sure will make happy some of Burton's admirers.

Section Three consists of five extended scenes: Launch The Monkey, offering more from the beginning to explain the interstellar phenomenon; Dinner, which offers more on Senator Nado's (Glenn Shadix) spare time; Kill Them All, extention of Thade's plans for the humans; Ari In the Trees, a short sequence of Ari taking a shortcut; and She's A Chimpanzee, which has Daena making obvious Ari's attraction to Leo.

Section Four features standard supplements: For those longing for more vacuous EPK-style documentaries, there's HBO's lightweight The Making of Planet of the Apes (27 min); also included the music video for "Rule the Planet" — the Paul Oakenfold remix version of Elfman's theme, the teaser and theatrical trailer, six TV spots, trailers for Moulin Rouge and Dr. Doolittle 2, poster art and press kit gallery, and a soundtrack promo. Section Five has DVD-ROM content, where the sixth and final section consists of still of drawings from pre-production for props and costumes. The disc is exhausting, and one constantly wishes all this went into a better film.

— Damon Houx

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