No bananas today
Burton’s Apes makes monkeys of previous films (mostly)
Right off, let’s get one thing straight. Compared to the original movie loosely based on the brilliant satirical novel by Pierre Boulle, this new film from Tim Burton mostly makes monkeys of that campy barrel of primates. Yeah, I understand. There is some sentimental baggage attached to that first flick. From the skeletal remains of Rod Serling’s original screenplay to NRA poster boy Chuck Heston’s groaning ham-fest of a performance, there are some endearing aspects to Fox’s first version of this tale. George Taylor’s utterances when faced with the ape-lords’ inhumanity have entered our collective cultural consciousness: “Take your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!” “You bloody baboons!” “It’s a madhouse! A madhouse!” and best of all, “You blew it up! Damn you! God damn you all to hell!”
But this film is a whole new barrel.
In this version of things, Leo Davidson (Mark Wahlberg) is a pilot charged with training chimpanzees on a space station orbiting a Saturn-like planet. When an electromagnetic storm eddies into the station’s sector, Davidson is ordered to send his prize pupil, Pericles, out into the anomaly to investigate. Pericles and his pod subsequently vanish, and Davidson sets out after the chimp in defiance of his commanders.
Of course, the storm opens a gateway into another universe (seemingly), and within a fast-paced matter of seconds, Davidson has crash landed in a pond, escaped, gotten swept along with a bunch of panic-stricken, rag-sporting humans, and hunted to the ground by leaping, swinging, armor-clad, ultra-violent apes.
Beaten and bleeding, the hunted humans are carted into Ape City—a terraced mountain of concentrically arranged domiciles. Here, we meet Ari (Helena Bonham Carter), an animal-rights troublemaker, throwing rocks at the hunters. Eventually, she purchases Davidson and a couple of other humans to spare them from brutal experiments.
Spearheaded by Davidson, aided by Ari, the four humans escape Ape City, closely pursued by human-hating General Thade (Tim Roth) and a huge army of kill-crazed apes. This all leads to a climactic battle out in the desert, at an ancient site that goes the original film’s Statue of Liberty “shocker” 10 times better.
Wahlberg is competent as the tough, man-of-few-words hero, Davidson. As Thade, Tim Roth is a sentient chimpanzee and behaves like one—sniffing the air, shambling about, throwing ape-like fits when things don’t go his way. Far from being ridiculous, Thade’s behavior is actually frightening. Better is Helena Bonham Carter. Even through her cute-chimp make-up, Carter is fantastic. Her serious approach to her character renders Ari completely credible. She’s an oddball; ape or human, she’d have a hard time fitting in anywhere. We like Ari.
Burton’s direction, once we’re on the planet, is fast-paced, barely stopping for breath. Some of the in-joke dialogue is clunky but forgivable. Rick Baker’s make-up deserves praise—these apes’ entire faces relay their emotions and intentions clearly, their mouths moving to all their utterances, quite unlike the apes in the original movie, whose mouths sometimes didn’t move at all when they spoke!
Best of all is the ending. I heard some sniveling from some of the audience at the cliffhanger finale. And I understand: We live in a time of neat, uncomplicated fictions. But let me say this: It is the closest in spirit to Boulle’s book. And it obviously portends a new franchise. However, Burton and company are off to a rousing start.