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Wednesday, July 25, 2001

Stranded on Planet Hollywood

No signs of intelligent life

Planet of the Apes

Rating: * * Director: Tim Burton Running time: 120 minutes Language: EnglishNow showing

Michael Clarke Duncan in Tim Burton's "Planet of the Apes"(C)2001 TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX CORPORATION. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Director Tim Burton is quite clear on this matter: His version of "Planet of the Apes" is no mere "remake" of the 1968 original (insert auteur's snort of disgust here) -- it's a "re-imagination." But I beg to differ. A more appropriate description would be "remakeover," for while the simian makeup effects in Burton's film are far more advanced, in all other aspects his film is far less imaginative and daring than its predecessor.

"Planet of the Apes"? Daring? Well, after all the spinoff juvenilia of the "Apes" series (Saturday-morning cartoons, action dolls and the like), it's hard to recall the original's impact, the astute way in which it dug into the cultural psyche of the time. Nevertheless, the first "Planet of the Apes" was a landmark in dystopian cinema: Its shocking closing shot of a toppled Statue of Liberty, a crumbling ruin of a past empire buried in sand, hit audiences hard.

A space station exploring a distant galaxy sends a chimpanzee-piloted probe to investigate an electromagnetic storm. When it disappears, pilot Leo Davidson (Mark Wahlberg ) defies orders and goes after it. His controls go crazy, and when he emerges from the disturbance, he crash lands on a planet very much like Earth, but with a few differences. The biggest one, of course, being the fact that apes have developed a civilization and hunt down humans like animals. Leo is captured, along with feral humans Daena (Estella Warren) and her father Karubi (Kris Kristofferson), and sold to slave-trader orangutan Limbo (Paul Giamatti). There they come across Ari (Helena Bonham Carter), a liberal chimp who believes that humans should have rights too. She helps them to escape, but they are pursued by an ape army led by Thade (Tim Roth), a berserk gorilla general. The humans retreat to the forbidden city of Calima, where Leo hopes to rendezvous with his space station, but instead makes a surprising discovery. As the ape army approaches, Leo rallies the assembled humans for a last stand . . . will help arrive in the nick of time?

That this nightmare image came in 1968 was no coincidence. In that year both Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated, the Tet Offensive gave America a chilling preview of its imminent defeat in Vietnam and the street violence surrounding the antiwar protests hinted at a coming anarchy. Fear of the end of an empire was in the air, and "Apes" seemed to reflect this. (Its sequel, "Return to the Planet of the Apes," literalized it, with pacifist chimpanzees carrying peace signs protesting the war policy of the gorillas.)

"Planet of the Apes" is usually viewed as an inverted morality play, a post-civil rights movement parable on equality. But the great unspoken parallel was undoubtedly a more primal fear, an unspeakable one, one unleashed by the revolutionary rhetoric of the Black Panthers and the reality of the Watts riots in L.A. This was a film that showed former slaves -- descendants of Africa, no less -- armed and taking brutal vengeance on their former masters, the humans, played by an all-white cast.

A brutal allegory for one possible future, indeed, but just one of several unsettling notions in the "Apes" mix: The environmentalist notion that man's dominance of the planet was starting to boomerang, species extinction and genocide, the very real threat of nuclear holocaust. The monkeys were a thin mask of fantasy on a number of doomsday scenarios that seemed, if not likely, still terrifyingly possible.

Could Burton have used his new version to play on contemporary fears in the same canny way? Certainly. Genetic modification, lab-testing and the breeding of animals for organ harvesting, post-global-warming environmental disaster, the ape-borne Ebola virus and HIV -- all these could have offered new angles for his "re-imagination." Sadly, he ignores these, opting instead to make "Braveheart" with chimps, a preposterous, Roland Emmerich-sort of lockjawed heroism over a threadbare plot.

A lack of vision comes as no surprise whenever you find screenwriting by committee (the new "Planet of the Apes" has three credited writers), but this is certainly a surprise in a Tim Burton flick. "Apes" has a three-act narrative riddled with plot holes, implausibilities and a nick-of-time climax so predictably lame that one suspects the onscreen chimps would have been better employed behind the typewriters.

Mark Wahlberg and Estella Warren (top) and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa and Tim Roth (above) in "Planet of the Apes" (C)2001 TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX CORPORATION. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Burton's film does start with the same great premise as the original, taken from the sci-fi novel by Pierre Boulle: An astronaut slips through a stitch in the space-time continuum and is marooned on a planet where the apes have evolved and rule over humans, who are enslaved as menial beasts. But from there the director strays considerably.

You can immediately spot the difference. In the original, when astronaut Taylor (Charlton Heston) arrives in this alien world, he is shocked to find that the apes have developed language, religion and technology (firearms even), but the real shocker is that his fellow humans are lower on the evolutionary ladder, incapable of even speech, and -- in the ultimate insult -- treated as beasts who must be collared in public.

An injury to Taylor's throat initially renders him unable to speak, so he is

mistaken for a "normal" Homo sapiens and rounded up in a cage with all the other human "cattle." Lucky for him: His fellow astronaut, who does speak up, is taken to some ape scientists who perform horrible experiments on his brain. Dark stuff, and a poignant mirror-reversal of the animal/human power relationship -- Darwinism doesn't seem so "natural" when you're on the wrong side of the food chain.

In the new film, astronaut Leo (Mark Wahlberg) lands and -- like Taylor -- is quickly hunted down and captured by the apes. But he is quickly able to communicate with his fellow humans, as they all speak with the same fluency as the apes. They're also able to make weapons, clothing and coordinate gatherings of a dispersed population. Which makes you wonder why the apes consider them "wild" and incapable of culture. The perfect role-reversal of the original is muddied here and to no worthy end.

In the original, the apes fear Taylor with good reason: because of his advanced grasp of language and conceptual thought, and also because they know the devastation that the former human civilization wrought. In the "re-imagination," the apes fear Leo simply because of "the look in his eyes." Sly commentary on man's thoughtless domination of animals has been replaced by the cult of the lone hero, the "one man who made a difference," so beloved of deep-voiced movie-preview narrators. Like I said, " Braveheart." With chimps.

Up until now, Burton has been noted for the dark and slightly twisted vision he has brought to comic-book material in films like "Batman" and "Mars Attacks." For "Planet of the Apes," though, he's in reverse gear. In the original, Heston ends up with no victory other than survival, riding off to an uncertain future, and the discovery that the Earth that he knew had destroyed itself. The sequel, "Return," ends with all three protagonists dead and the total extinction of the planet! Now that is dark.

Burton's film largely tosses out all the dark elements in favor of limp comedy -- some truly hopeless mugging by Paul Giamatti as a shiftless orangutan slave trader -- and a feel-good finish. Leo, in the course of about three days, rallies all the humans on the planet ("Sometimes even a few can make a difference!"), defeats the ape empire that has ruled for millennia, and reconciles humanity and apes to peaceful coexistence.

Heston was plagued by terror, confusion and his own solitary hell, unable to communicate with his own species. In short, the sort of "outsider" that Burton professes to love. Wahlberg has no personality to speak of, other than a peeved impatience that he has to free his species from the apes before he can go home. Hell, at least Heston showed some natural attraction to Nova (Linda Harrison), his feral vixen sidekick; Wahlberg never even seems to notice that his feral babe Daena (Estella Warren) spends the whole film in a leather micro-dress giving him bedroom eyes.

When science-fiction films succeed in pulling us in entirely, they're capable of making us examine our assumptions in a very different light. The original "Planet of the Apes" wasn't great art; it was action-adventure entertainment. But, like much '60s/'70s sci-fi -- from "Star Trek" through "Zardoz" -- it was earnestly addressing larger questions, deeper themes: "Beware the beast man," warned the apes' high priest. "Alone among the primates, he kills for sport or lust or greed."

The new version offers only superficially allusive but ultimately meaningless sound bites lifted from the political world, like "Extremism in the defense of apes is no vice," or "Can't we all just get along?" (A joke line which, given what happened to Rodney King, is almost insulting in its flippancy.) Burton seems to be wallowing in otaku autism, with no interest in anything other than "cool" creature makeup and set design. Minus the vision thing, Burton's "Apes" is contemporary Hollywood at its worst, nothing more than a two-hour toy commercial.

The new "Apes" is less than the old one in the same way that "Pearl Harbor" is less than "From Here to Eternity" -- visual special effects attempting to compensate for a lack of any sort of perspective. Maybe science fiction got it right again: Mankind's future is one of devolution.

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