Whoa, I think I’m all geeked out now, having just seen what has to be one of the most fun movies out this summer. I wasn’t expecting to like it so much, with the reviews being mixed and some fanboys raging about how disappointing this new episode of the Apes saga is. Indeed, the movie has its problems, namely how it eschews the Pierre Boulle novel and the first movie adaptation’s political and social allegory. You can still read some commentary on racism, animal rights or the issue of religion versus science throughout Tim Burton’s reimagined “Planet of the Apes”, but it’s superficial and inconsequential at best. For better or worse, what we got here is another go at the archetypical story of the loner who rides into town and inspires the weak to stand up against their oppressors. This is Outlaw Josey Wales helping the villagers fight off the Yankees, Mad Max joining the bunkered people as they strike back at the road warriors, Braveheart leading the Scots against the English army…
Our protagonist is US Air Force astronaut Leo Davidson (Mark Wahlberg). After leaving his space station to chase after his helper monkey in an electromagnetic storm, Davidson is somehow hurled through time and space and eventually crashes on an unknown world where he is captured by talking gorillas who treat humans as inferior animals to be enslaved. Yet he’s reluctant at the idea of being a hero; that blonde hottie (Canadian synchronised swimmer turned model turned actress Estella Warren) who follows him around and her slow-witted friends be damned, all he wants is get off this messed-up planet, pronto!
The film was written by William Broyles Jr, Mark Rosenthal and Lawrence Konner and, while they don’t delve into much thought-provoking material, their script is relatively tight and engaging enough. It swiftly goes from A to B, simply setting up oppositions and characters along the way, and it pays off with an exciting action climax and an hilarious Bizarro twist ending. In any case, as in most of Tim Burton’s movies (except “Edward Scissorhands” and “Ed Wood”, his two masterpieces), storytelling and character development are secondary to splendid production design and moody, stylish direction. I loved this new planet, the more complex and detailed Ape City, with chimps everywhere playing b-ball or music, having a drink, getting laid… And what chimps they are! As impressive as the Oscar winning make-up was in the original, it never felt as organic, as natural as what FX whiz Rick Baker has pulled here. His apes not only look great, they also move and act great.
I like that the actors are still able to convey emotions through facial expressions despite all the latex and faux fur. It also paid off to have them go through “Ape School”, as they now walk, breathe and behave like true animals; even though they talk, they’ll sometimes revert to groans and high pitch screams. Of course you also have to credit the cast itself for this. There’s Michael Clarke Duncan as a gorilla army goon who conveys real brute force, but also has an interesting character arc that has him questioning his religious beliefs and his loyalties. There’s Paul Giamatti’s orang-utan slave trader, who brings some comic relief. Or what about Helena Bonham-Carter’s human rights activists chimp lady and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa’s conflicted gorilla who decides to side with the humans? Last but not least is Tim Roth’s rage-fuelled portrayal of General Thade, a cruel and vicious chimpanzee who really loathes humans. Roth’s performance is all animal aggressiveness, and his Thade has got to be the coolest movie villain we’ve seen all year.
In the end, maybe that’s what it comes down to: if you’re as much of a sucker for apes as I am you’re in for a treat, but if you’re looking for compelling human characters and challenging subtext, you’ve got the wrong movie. Mark Wahlberg is pretty good, but he’s nowhere near as memorable a hero as the original’s machobadass Taylor, who was played with wonderfully self-righteous gusto by a scenery-chewing Charlton Heston (who has a cameo in the new film, as an ape!). Likewise, Danny Elfman’s music isn’t bad but it never reaches the creepy percussive intensity of Jerry Goldsmith’s original score, and Philippe Rousselot’s dark cinematography doesn’t quite hold up to the bright Deluxe Color of the original. Then again, we get better apes, many tense moments, some funny ones, a thrilling battle between human tribes and the simian army and a funny, funny ending. All that made it so I wasn’t bothered by the pedestrian plot and the holes in logic.
Burton’s “Planet of the Apes” is not without its flaws, but neither were the films of the original series. What we have here is an expertly crafted adventure just a bit quirkier than your average popcorn movie, and I was entertained by it. I mean apes, man, a whole planet of them, how can you not dig this?