While director Tim Burton doesn’t quite pull off a master achievement with his Planet of the Apes, it is a visual triumph and a nice springboard for hopefully superior sequels.
Give credit to Burton and makeup maestro Rick Baker for disregarding the shortcut temptations of CGI for hardcore, incredible makeup creations for their ape creatures. Seriously, if this film were just a bunch of apes sitting around playing dominoes and eating yogurt, it still would’ve been worth seeing for Baker’s work.
Baker is no stranger to simian re-creations (he’s the fellow running around in a self-created, realistic-looking ape suit in 1976’s King Kong remake). He’s created a series of characters that are each unique, rather than the unilateral approach of the original Apes series. The result probably qualifies as the single greatest makeup achievement in Hollywood history.
When considering all of Burton’s films, Apes probably ranks in the bottom half of his accomplishments, and that is not necessarily a put-down. (I’ve enjoyed all of his movies.) His Apes remake feels like it needed another year or so of production and script work to be fully realized; it looks great in parts, but it doesn’t tell much of a story.
The film starts on a space station conducting experiments with primates, genetically engineering them to become more intelligent and capable of flying spaceships. Mark Wahlberg plays Leo, a U.S. Air Force pilot and caretaker of the monkeys (reminiscent of Matthew Broderick’s character from Project X), who takes off after one of his chimps when he’s lost in space. After hurling through some purple space storm, Leo crash lands on a planet where apes are superior to humans, and he is immediately captured and sold into slavery.
The rest of the film is basically Leo trying to get back to Earth, building up to an explanation for how a planet became ruled by apes. That explanation, while possessing some logistical holes, is satisfactory, while not a complete surprise.
Some naysayers have complained that Mark Wahlberg is no Charlton Heston (this is true, since Wahlberg is an actor far more in control of his facilities), but Wahlberg is a good action hero. He looks the part, and he gives you a character you can relate to, because he’s not larger than life or superhuman. He’s just some guy in the wrong place at the wrong time, and he’s not liking it.
What this film is missing is not a decent hero (Wahlberg is fine). It’s missing a character like Cornelius the chimpanzee (played in the original by Roddy McDowall). Helena Bonham Carter’s slightly goofy-looking chimp, Ari, is saddled with most of the reasonable ape stuff (she’s a human activist), and the film sorely misses the in-between, “I don’t quite trust these humans, but I’m willing to work on it” character. I kept getting the feeling that one more strong ape character with a soul and a sense of humor would’ve helped the film out.
Tim Roth is decent, if slightly overbearing at times, as General Thade, a classically evil, huffy chimpanzee determined to exterminate humans. For comic relief, Paul Giamatti gets some laughs as Limbo, the slave-trading orangutan (love those teeth).
Much has been said about the twist ending and how little sense it makes. Well, this is a science-fiction film, and I saw nothing in the ending that can’t be explained in a future sequel. As it stands, the ending poses many questions and gives no answers … a fun puzzle that will hopefully be solved through future installments.
I suppose an argument can be established that Planet of the Apes is Burton’s weakest film. It’s certainly his most inconsistent, but something tells me that 10 years from now, if sequels are being wrecked Joel Schumacher-style, people will speak kindly of Burton’s admirable, if not fully realized, attempt.