In the pre-Net era, aging Boomers like me often marked the phases of our lives with dumb TV shows and a handful of arresting, even ground-breaking movies or cultural offerings we remember all our lives, much the way younger folks may recall Star Wars or Myst. Planet of The Apes, released 30 years ago, a movie that morphed into a series, then a cult fad, was one of them. It looks a bit grade B these days, but at the time, it was a real and imaginative shocker that dealt directly with race, class, space and the Nuclear Age. And it ended with a conclusion that stunned audiences -- a real rarity in American movies. In fact, I can't think of another that matches it. I always pegged it at the top of the list of the era's sci-fi movies. The new one won't be. Spoilage warning: Plot discussed, but no details of the ... er ... shocking ending.
This only matters because it may affect the way older people see Tim Burton's reimagined Planet of the Apes. It's a generational thing, admittedly, of no importance to anybody under 30, who can go see the movie with less baggage.
But in that context, this movie doesn't match up, or come close. And it pretty much squelches hopes for a great movie of this summer (with the possible exception of Shrek). Unless American Pie 2 really delivers, there just ain't going to be one.
The costuming and computerized effects in Planet of the Apes are really terrific, and the movie is at times witty, imaginative and entertaining, no small accomplishment, especially this summer. It reminds us that when it comes to ominous design and atmosphere, nobody can top Burton. Where he seems to have trouble is with storytelling.
In the original, Charlton Heston played the towering hero Col. George Taylor, the arrogant and stranded space traveler. In this re-engineering, rechristened Capt. Leo Davidson, Mark Wahlberg, takes over. As great as he was in Three Kings and Boogie Nights, historical comparison isn't kind to Wahlberg, who seems to really lack stature. He looks stunned from the minute he lands on this strange planet, and he spends much of 125 minutes mumbling platitudes to simians and humans and running from some ferocious, brilliantly-rendered and truly mean apes. (The exception is a literal human-rights activist and bleeding heart named Ari, played by Helena Bonham Carter.) This movie really needs George Clooney or a younger Harrison Ford.
You'll find all sorts of winks and nods at the earlier films, including landscape and architectural references, and an uncredited appearance by Heston himself as the ape general's father. There are also mutations of the earlier version's best known lines -- including the classic "Take your stinkin' paws off me, you damn dirty ape!" You had to love Heston at that moment in the first movie, a towering old-school Hollywood superhero insisting on his dignity in world that didn't want to give him a shred, but which, ultimately, had no choice. Capt. Davidson never gets far enough past his shock and disorientation to get mad. In keeping with this era, he's a sensitive hero, concerned but incapable of outrage.
Tim Roth playes Thade, the Simian general who truly loathes humans and exudes hate and rage with every movement and facial expression.
Thade finds people so disgusting he literally bounces off the walls and hangs off the ceiling waiting to get to them so he can tear them apart. Yet oddly, he loves Ari, the liberal human sympathizer. (In another echo of the past, she loves the spaceman, of course, and there is even an interspecies smooch that had the audience in my theater feeling volubly yucky.)
But don't look for too much intellectual exercise. The movie makes the point -- fittingly, through Heston -- that the smarter humans become, the more damage they seem to do as a species. The first movie clearly had racial and class messages to pass along (it was adapted from La Planete des Singes, a novel by Pierre Boulle, whose target was European class snobbery).
There are things to admire here. The faces and expressions of the apes are much more expressive than they were 30 years ago. They're more expressive, in fact, than Wahlberg's. The computer-rendered battle scene, becoming a staple of Hollywood action movies, is impressive.
And the opening 10 or 15 minutes are promisingly fabulistic. On a spaceship that sends trained monkeys out in pods rather than risking humans, Capt Davidson's favorite, Pericles, gets lost in a nebula. It's a neat sequence, with Davidson defying orders to set out after him. Strange space storms wreck his navigation systems, though, and he crash lands on the nearest planet. Leo barely hits the ground, though, before vicious ape soldiers out to capture and sell humans into slavery are after him and his kind. We are clearly meant to see none-too-subtle slave-trade analogies here (plus echoes of animal-rights arguments). But even movies about apes ought to evolve -- does anybody in 2001 really need convincing of slavery's evil?
Nevertheless, to make the point, the movie's humans get treated with utter contempt and brutality, bought and sold and doomed to menial labor, caged at night. In one manipulative but effective sequence, a small child, adopted as a pet by an ape girl, gets locked in a birdcage at night. In what is perhaps a reference to slavery and the Old South, ape society seems to be becoming more narcissistic and decadent, its cruelty to humans undermining its own sense of moral value and purpose.
Dahlberg, who seems ill at ease in this movie and is flat throughout, simply wants to get home. Hardly any other motive or thought occurs to him until very near the ending. Ari, protesting brutality against humans, helps Leo escape to rouse the battered, hopeless remnants of the human race.
I don't want to give anything further away, except to say that either Burton or 20th Century Fox went for still another memorable ending to this Planet of the Apes. I suppose you have to admire their guts, and this one is also a jaw-dropper, but alas, mostly because it's so dumb.
Let's be clear: Planet of the Apes is more than good enough to go see, but you will have forgotten every scene by Labor Day. In 30 years, you'll be eagerly awaiting the remake of something else -- hopefully. Maybe it will be less of a disappointment for you than this one was for me.