Planet of the Apes (2001)

WFTB Score: 5/20

The plot: Pursuing his favourite chimp Pericles through a dangerous magnetic field, Captain Leo Davidson crash-lands on a planet where apes rule the roost and captured humans are their slaves. Whilst securing his own freedom, Leo finds himself leader of a rag-tag band including slave girl Daena and sympathetic ape Ari, much to the displeasure of human-hating General Thade.

When venturing into the dangerous, inky depths of space, mankind has never been afraid to let his simian cousins go first; and such it is on the space station Oberon, lingering on the edges of a strange and powerful magnetic field. Though Leo Davidson (Mark Wahlberg) has misgivings, his favourite chimpanzee Pericles is sent to navigate a path through the field. Pericles’ pod vanishes and when Leo gives chase so does he, hurtling through time and space and crashing onto a strange planet where the roles are reversed and humans are kept captive to serve the needs of apes. Leo’s captured along with Karubi (Kris Kristofferson) and his daughter Daena (Estella Warren), and they are all sold on by trader Limbo (Paul Giamatti) to Senator Sandar (David Warner), much to the disapproval of his pro-human daughter Ari (Helena Bonham Carter). Ari sees that Leo is a man apart and becomes a willing hostage when he escapes with Daena and other humans, but those in charge aren’t going to just let them go. Specifically, General Thade (Tim Roth), backed up by big gorilla Attar (Michael Clarke Duncan), not only has designs on Ari, and martial law; he despises humans and would like nothing more than – as his father urges on his deathbed – to damn them all to hell.

As a brief guide to the quality of Planet of the Apes, I’m very tempted to follow This is Spinal Tap‘s lead and review the film thusly: Total ape sh*t. Make no mistake, Burton’s massive misstep of a remake – sorry, “reimagining” – is a complete turkey, but it might help a little if I explain why. It’ll also help to fill up the page.

Well, to start with, a perfectly simple action-centric story – human arrives on planet, escapes from slavery with hostage and is pursued, resulting in climactic showdown – is butchered and botched at every step. In something like chronological order, the problems are as follows: the space station scenes are completely uninvolving, the effects no more convincing than an episode of Deep Space Nine; Mark Wahlberg looks thoroughly disconnected throughout, which is little surprise when he has to say lines such as ‘I’m going after my chimp’; there’s no reason for Kris Kristofferson to be in the film, he does so little; the escape/kidnapping sequence is lousy, with some awful jokey moments shoehorned in; Giamatti’s Limbo – the comic relief, supposedly – is a nuisance, and it’s a disappointment when he’s forced to join the escape party; the inter-species politics are tiresome and more than a little Phantom Menace-y; Ari’s demeanour is that of a tediously liberal university lecturer, and her hair is ridiculous; as the third point of a poorly-handled love triangle (count those reaction shots!), Estella Warren is a fine-looking woman but unfortunately can’t act for toffee – she appears to find choosing an appropriate facial expression an insurmountable chore; the plot asks us to take some ridiculous things on trust, such as the fact that a millennia-old crashed and semi-submerged spaceship will function perfectly when required; and while sensibly ditching the well-known twist of the original, the substitute is unconvincing, tacked-on in feel and inappropriately comic in tone. It also doesn’t seem to make any sense, but I’ll admit I wasn’t trying very hard to understand the film by the end, having been moved to sullen confusion by the unexplained re-appearance of one of Leo’s long-lost friends. No wonder that the subversions of the most memorable lines of Charlton Heston’s 1968 original, and even the appearance of Chuck himself (I’m not saying where or how), are greeted not with warm smiles of recognition but groaning eye-rolls.

All this is a terrible shame, because in places Planet of the Apes looks more than half-decent. Rick Baker’s ape make-up and other effects are perfectly good, and while he’s outrageously over-the-top, Roth’s villainous General Thade is compellingly vile (Clarke Duncan, sadly no longer with us, is also fine). The climactic battle sequence also promises to become something lively, epic and not too computer-generated, but unfortunately most of the action is lost because the fights are staged in a dustbowl. There’s also a stupid, impetuous kid who won’t follow orders, an entirely predictable touch which loses the movie further marks.

If you want to, you can delve into the development hell that ended with Tim Burton, a director known for his fantastical imagination and gothic style, helming a conventional sci-fi action remake with a lousy, incoherent script, peopled, and aped, by mostly bland characters. It’s not a piece of research I’m particularly motivated to conduct – just know that this Planet of the Apes is not the one you’re looking for. I will revisit this review when I catch up with Franklin J. Schaffner’s original; however, I don’t think for a second that watching that film will improve my feelings towards this one.

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