MY PLANET OF THE APES REVIEW

 

Spoilers Ahoy!

POTA is a difficult film to review, especially as someone who's a fan of the 1968 film, but an even bigger fan of Tim Burton. On first viewing, Planet of the Apes 2001 seems like the least "Burtonesque" of the director's oeuvre to date. The first 15 minutes, especially, are played very straight. POTA is more like a typical Hollywood blockbuster, with lots of action and comedy, but little logic or depth. As popcorn flicks go, though, it's better than most. The pace never drags for a second and the actors playing the apes (in incredible make-up by Rick Baker) all put on a fine show. But, by the end, it feels more like an entertaining warm-up for the sequel, rather than an outstanding piece of cinema in its own right (much like The Phantom Menace).

That's what my initial view of POTA was after seeing it opening day at the Mann cinema in Westwood, so I'm glad I saw the film a second time, and mused on the plot and characters a bit more, before writing this in-depth review. This movie seems to have turned off a lot of critics - even loyal Burton supporters such as Rolling Stone's Peter Travers and Aint It Cool News's Harry Knowles had little praise for the film.

I think there are two reasons for this backlash. Firstly, most viewers found it impossible to let go of their expectations based on the original film (even though this was billed as a re-imagining rather than a remake). Secondly, because the production of the film was so rushed, it seems (at least on the surface) that Burton didn't get a chance to put his personal stamp on the film as much as he usually does.

However, while POTA might be classed as an interesting failure (which cleaned up at the box office none the less), I think that it contains some of Burton's best work and even improves on the original in several areas (not just visually).

The plot has been cited by many as the film's major weak point, but I think it's perfectly serviceable. It mixes old-fashioned heroics with time travel paradoxes that would confuse Marty McFly. The best thing about the story is that it keeps moving forward, never getting bogged down in lengthy dialogue scenes (something even Burton's otherwise superlative Sleepy Hollow was guilty of). There are several big surprises towards the end, and while they don't hold up under much close scrutiny, they provoke enough fun debate to make this movie worthy of repeat viewings.

As in nearly every other Burton piece, it's the characters that really drive the movie. At first I was disappointed by the lack of a clear outsider protagonist. Mark Wahlberg gives a likeable performance as astronaut Leo Davidson, but he lacks the macho charisma of Charlton Heston's Taylor, or the quirky appeal of, say, Johnny Deep's Ichabod Crane. He just reacts to what's going on around him with a subdued distress, and even when he takes charge of the rebel humans at the film's end, he makes a less than convincing leader. The rest of the humans are even duller (though Estella Warren's Daena is very nice to look at) and might as well be mute for all the impact their dialogue has. Having them speak good English also makes it somewhat unbelievable that they would be treated as mindless animals.

But it's clearly the apes Burton was interested in, not humans, which is as it should be. After all, few would complain that the human characters in the Jurassic Park films are pretty boring compared to the dinos. What's remarkable is how well rounded all the main ape characters are in Burton's POTA, perhaps more so than the ones in the original film. Aided by the expressive make-up, the actors all convincingly portray both the human-like intelligence and emotions of these genetically advanced primates, as well as their animal instincts. All the following actors deserve praise.

First up is Tim Roth as General Thade, who provides the clear evil that was lacking from the first POTA. He's a furry ball of pent-up rage who explodes into savage and athletic violence at the slightest provocation. Some may find his snarling, black and white villainy a bit one-note, but no one can deny that Thade is definitely one chimp you wouldn't want to meet in a dark alley, or anywhere for that matter. Especially chilling is the scene where he pries Leo's mouth open and asks "Is there a soul in there?"

Even better is Helena Bonham Carter as Ari. As a chimpanzee campaigning for human rights, she manages to be humorous, sensitive, intelligent, simian and, dare I say it, sexy all at once. The relationship between her and Leo goes far further than Taylor and Zira's ever did in the original (though still not close to the hot monkeysex that was half-joking rumoured before production). The mutual attraction between them is mostly played for laughs, but their relationship (which is obviously based more on personalities than looks) still manages to be quite touching. Her final words, and goodbye kiss, to Leo is more affecting than his relationship with any of the humans. Ari also fits the mold of the wild-haired Burtonite misfit his fans have come to love and, to my mind, emerges as the movie's real hero.

Next up is Michael Clarke Duncan as Attar. He manages to perfectly capture the incredible power and imposing presence of a gorilla, while subtly suggesting that his character, while opposed to the humans, also has a moral and spiritual side. His eventual redemption at the end may seem out of place to some, but it is a fitting evolution for his character.

Paul Giamatti plays the orangutan Limbo and is that rare marvel - comic relief in an action film that actually works. His hilariously sleazy slave trader predictably, but enjoyably, turns out to be an old softy at heart. Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa does a good job bringing out the sensitive side of gorillas with the character of Krull. His conflict with former friend Attar carries surprising weight, considering how little screen time they have together.

David Warner, along with Burton regulars Glenn Shadix and Lisa Marie, also turn in amusing performances in smaller ape roles. Finally, it would be amiss not to mention the "surprise" cameo of one Chuck Heston as Thade's dying father. His single scene even manages to take potshots at his role as president of the National Rifle Association, and his final line brought the house down among the Apes fans I saw the film with.

On a purely technical level, this lives up to the usual Burton standard, if not surpassing it. Aside from Baker's work (they might as well give him the Oscar already) Rick Heinrichs' sets and Collen Atwood's costumes are impressive, if not too original. Danny Elfman's score is not as immediately memorable as his others, but it serves the film well, offering startling percussive sounds rather than his usual choirs. The action is also surprisingly well staged for a Burton film. The apes run, leap and break human bones in a way that has not been portrayed on screen before. The final, epic battle between man and ape may not be up there with Saving Private Ryan, but it manages to avoid the incoherence of the opening battle in Gladiator, while also avoiding the watered-down PG-13 feel of something like The Mummy Returns.

So, overall, POTA is another semi-classic from Burton which, while unlikely to ever eclipse the original film, is a lot better than remakes usually turn out. You have to wonder about the people who are still complaining about the absurd humor and confusing plots in each new Tim Burton film. I'd have thought sometime over the last fifteen years they'd have finally realised this guy's films aren't for them! However, POTA's success on a commercial level is good news any way you look at it. Following back to back blockbusters with this and Sleepy Hollow, Burton is guaranteed an even freer reign with his future work. So let's hope he takes the opportunity to make a more personal film next, rather than another big budget studio epic.
Oh, and why wasn't Thade's "Get me the spaceman!" line in the film? I loved that in the trailer!

OK, that's my review, but I think the ending of POTA is so interesting, and has sparked so much debate, that it deserves a separate section. First of all, there appears to be a great deal of confusion about what exactly the filmmaker's intentions were with the final twist. Was it an attempt to top the shock ending of the original? A lazy set-up for the potential sequel? A surrealist dream sequence? Has Leo gone crazy? Or is it simply an absurd final joke from Burton? The answer may well be all or none of the above. The ending is whatever you want it to be, much like 2001: A Space Odyssey. Not that I'm comparing the POTA remake to Kubrick's masterpiece, but the anger some people have expressed over Burton's ending is odd when unexplained endings are accepted all the time in European and Arthouse cinema.

But, if we do accept the ending literally, how easy is it to come up with an explanation? Let's start by examining what we know as facts.

Fact 1: Thade is imprisoned but alive when Leo leaves the planet.

Fact 2: The Oberon and Leo's pod are both still on the planet, and could theoretically be repaired by someone with the know-how and time to do so.

Fact 3: Pericles the chimp is also still on the planet, and he possesses the knowledge of how to travel through space.

Fact 4: Going by the three travellers we see in the film, the space/time storm seems to work on a first in, last out basis. That would mean that if Thade followed Leo back to Earth at a later date, he could arrive years before him.

Fact 5: Apes were being genetically modified before Leo started his quest, so if Thade did arrive in 21st Century Earth, he would have a potential army of intelligent, rebellious primates waiting for him to lead them.

Fact 6: It is said that apes cannot invent complex technology so, judging by the appearance of the ape police and their cars, etc. at the end, Thade led the revolt in the late 20th or early 21st centuries, and the ruling apes just carried on using existing human technology.

Bearing all that in mind, how much of a stretch is it to say that Thade managed to escape, get a ship working, follow Leo back to Earth, take over the planet and replace Lincoln's face with his own?

Okay, it is a pretty big stretch, but it's not out of the realms of possibility. At the end of the film, we know as much as Leo does. We don't have the answers to all our questions, but that's not the same as a plot hole.

Here are my various theories for the ending:

Theory 1: It's all a dream. In the sequel, Leo wakes up safe back on the Earth he knows.

Theory 2: It's a hallucination brought on by his traumatic experience on the ape planet.

Theory 3: It's an elaborate practical joke by his friends from the video postcard.

Theory 4: It's an alternate reality/bizarro world. Maybe cosmic Karma is at work. Leo runs out on everyone when he should stay on the ape planet and help bring peace. He tries to return home, but winds up back where he started, only even worse off.

Theory 5: The genetically altered apes on Earth evolved to a point where they were able to conquer mankind in revenge for their habitat been destroyed. The General Thade memorial is just a coincidence - maybe Thade is a common name in ape culture, like Smith.

Theory 6: Thade somehow escaped from his cell, found a pod, got Pericles to show him how to fly, went through the space/time storm, arrived on Earth hundreds of years before Leo, led the apes there in a revolt against their masters, then replaced the head of Lincoln's statue with his own.

Theory 7: After Leo leaves, another ship from Earth arrives looking for the Oberon. The rescue crew discovers Thade still trapped inside and he either sneaks aboard their ship, or is taken by the crew to be studied. Either way, Thade ends up back on Earth and the ape revolt happens as outlined above.

Theory 8: After Leo leaves, the fragile human/ape peace collapses. Thade is released and once again assumes command of his army. He turns his full attention to repairing the pods that Leo left behind, so he can have his revenge on the human and free the apes on Earth. And that's just what he does.

Theory 9: The ape/human peace holds, and the humans share their gift of invention with the apes. Many years pass and they develop their own space technology. At that point, a descendent or follower of Thade leads a revolt against the humans. They succeed, and the apes travel to Earth through another time storm. The apes wind up in our present, and use their advanced technology to conquer mankind. Once they are victorious, the Lincoln memorial is remodelled to pay tribute to the ape leader who started it all.

Theory 10: Thade was not the one who saved the apes on Earth - it was Semos. After killing the crew of the Oberon, thousands of years before Leo arrived, he left in one of the still-functioning pods and returned to Earth. I wondered about the significance of Pericles' pod disappearing twice at the beginning. Maybe the second time it appeared, it was Semos heading towards Earth. Anyway, the ape god led a revolt in much the same way as Thade did, with the same result. As for why General Thade's name is on the monument - maybe it was just Leo's eyes playing tricks on him.

Theory 11: Thade escapes and travels back to Earth, but this time he arrives in the 19th Century. He assassinates Abraham Lincoln and appoints himself President of the United States. He then frees his fellow apes and they take control of the Earth.

Theory 12: Thade actually travels back to Earth before he is imprisoned on the Oberon. He has the pod lifted out of the water by human slaves and repaired. He goes to Earth, tampers with the gene pool enough to allow apes to rule mankind, then returns to Ashlar in time for the final battle. Doesn't make much sense, but at least it explains how he escaped from the unbreakable Plexiglas - he didn't.

Theory 13: The ape planet was Earth, all along. The extra moon was just to throw us off. At the end, Leo travelled thousands of years into the future, by which time the apes had created a civilisation that modelled our present world, based on the Oberon's databanks. No, I don't buy this either.

Theory 14: The place where Leo crashes at the end is not Washington D.C. Instead it is a ghetto where the descendants of the genetically modified apes have been forced to live. They have "aped" a human city and the Thade memorial is their idea of a jolly jape.

Theory 15: The ending was just a joke. Get over it!

Ultimately, everyone will have a different interpretation of the ending. While it would be interesting if the sequel came up with a brilliant explanation for all this, another part of me thinks it might be better to leave it a mystery forever. Either way, Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes is a quirky and intriguing sci-fi fairytale that deserves to be held up to the original series of films.

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