One of the most visionary filmmakers working today is, unquestionably, Tim Burton. Interested in telling strange and unusual tales with a grand helping of imagination and wonder to spare, Burton is a groundbreaking director whose stamp seems to be all over his films, from 1985's "Pee Wee's Big Adventure," to 1988's "Beetlejuice," to 1989's "Batman," to 1990's "Edward Scissorhands," to 1996's "Mars Attacks!," to 1999's "Sleepy Hollow." In each of his movies, he is equipped with startlingly innovative production designs and haunting music scores from Burton regular Danny Elfman. In a nutshell, when one goes to see "A Tim Burton Film," one is sure to walk out having seen something they have never seen before.
That being said, "Planet of the Apes," a re-imagining of the cult 1968 hit that spawned four sequels, is the most uneven motion picture Tim Burton has ever had the misfortune of directing. In fact, it doesn't particularly even seem like something that should go on his filmography next to everything else he has been involved with. Elfman's signature excellent score is still here, to be sure, but the movie is nearly devoid of inventive thought or human connection (whether it involve actual homosapiens or apes). Although nowhere near as badly handled or haphazardly constructed, "Planet of the Apes" remains Tim Burton's version of "Battlefield Earth."
Set in 2029, astronaut Leo Davidson (Mark Wahlberg) crash-lands his one-person space pod on an unidentified planet where apes are the superior life form over human beings, who are treated as slaves and animals. Immediately captured by General Thade (Tim Roth) and his gang of human-hating apes, Leo manages to promptly escape, along with a few of the other captured people, including the beautiful Daena (Estella Warren). Aided by ape-woman Ari (Helena Bonham Carter), who believes humans and primates should coexist as equals, the escapees begin their journey to a place called the "Forbidden Zone," where they hope to reach salvation.
Murkily plotted and slightly written, by William Broyles Jr., Lawrence Konner, and Mark D. Rosenthal, "Planet of the Apes" is a marginally ambitious sci-fi adventure that feels like it could have used another rewrite. Very little seems to happen in its 119-minute running time, and what does is merely passable--unexciting, frequently uninvolving, and just sort of there.
Also desperately lacking in character development, the film never allows you to grow attached to anyone onscreen (with one exception), and so you stop caring and become impatient. The talent roster is certainly impressive, especially for such a big-budget film, but not much is done with any one of them. Mark Wahlberg (2000's "The Perfect Storm") is an arresting actor who is, nonetheless, vapid as Leo Davidson. Nothing is learned about Leo in the course of the film, and Wahlberg's performance seems akin to a mirage--he just doesn't seem to be playing at the usual top of his game. Tim Roth (2000's "Lucky Numbers") disappears behind layers of Rick Baker's flawless ape makeup, as the villainous Thade, and with his human identity also goes a memorable presence. As for the sultry Estella Warren (2001's "Driven"), she is horribly put to waste as the human Daena, who says very little, and seems to be thinking even less. At the climax, we are led to believe that she has fallen for Leo, and it is one of the most laughably unwarranted film romances to come around the pike in some time. Had as much work been done in giving the people a little more personality as was spent on the Oscar-bound makeup, there might have been a little more material to chew on.
Thank goodness for small favors. Helena Bonham Carter (1999's "Fight Club") is the aforementioned one exception to the character problems, and she is a standout. As the determined, earnest Ari, Carter paints her role with just the right shading of emotion, longing, and hopefulness, and the results are dynamite. When all is said and done, it is Carter's sparkling turn that should get the much-earned credit.
Feeling obligated to one-up its 1968 predecessor, "Planet of the Apes" has two separate plot twists at the end. The first one is more or less predictable, and anyone with a sharp eye will be able to spot the setup during the early scene where Leo crashes his pod on the planet. The second twist appears at the very end, and it is almost enraging in how little sense it actually makes. While the undiscriminating viewer may think it is "cool" and move on, put up to a split second of closer scrutiny unveils it to not only be illogical, but also pointless. Tim Burton may have reimagined the older "Planet of the Apes" for his current version, but the outcome was not necessarily for the better.
©2001 by Dustin Putman