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Planet of the Apes, 2001. Directed by Tim Burton. Mark Wahlberg, Tim Roth, Helena Bonham-Carter, Michael Clarke Duncan, Kris Kristoferson, Estella Warren, David Warner.

Synopsis: Deep space research station Oberon is conducting research on genetically enhanced primates to teach them to fly spacecraft and other activities dangerous to humans. Researcher Leo Davidson, also an Air Force captain and spaceship pilot, has become attached to his subject: a chimp pilot named Pericles. He regards Pericles as a friend, a pet even, so when Pericles is launched into an approaching elecromagnetic storm and then promptly vanishes, Leo takes it upon himself to follow him to effect a rescue. His ship is sucked into a time warp and he crash lands on a previously unknown planet. Once he frees himself from his vessel, he runs into a band of humans who are fleeing some unseen threat. The threat soon makes itself manifest as an army of armor-clad apes appear. They are hunting humans as slaves. They are led by General Thade, a chimpanze, and his subordinate, a gorilla named Attar. Thade and Attar dislike Davidson on sight and mark him as a troublemaker. Once captured, Davidson and the other humans are taken to the ape's city where they are to be branded and sold. Enter Ari, a chimpanze who is also a human rights advocate and the daughter of a senator. She intervenes as the humans are being branded and relieves the slavers of Davidson and a human female named Daena. Ari is also the object of affection for Thade, who takes her rejection poorly. Thade, meanwhile, is shown the crash site and murders the two soldiers who discovered it in order to keep it secret. Davidson eventually escapes and, with Ari's help, leads a band of humans out of the city and back to his spacecraft. There, Davidson picks up his homing beacon in hopes of a rendezvous with rescuers. The beacon leads them into The Forbidden Zone and to Calima, a holy site for the apes. We are told that "in the time before time," an ape named Simos threw off the dominion of humans and founded ape civilization. The apes believe that Simos will come again at that very spot. Ari regards this as superstition, but other apes, notably Attar, are devout. Meanwhile, Thade has siezed power and is leading an army on a genocidal mission to destroy the humans. At Calima, Davidson discovers the TRUE origin of ape civilization, and prepares for a final battle with Thade's army....

Monkey See, Monkey Do: This "re-imagining" of The Planet of the Apes has a cash register at its heart. Because this film wants to capitalize on the popularity of the 1968 original, the film inserts numerous homages. The first line we hear an ape speak, for instance, is "Get your stinking hand off of me you damned dirty human." There is an ape named Nova. Charleton Heston himself plays Thade's dying father. It even recalls the first film's racial subtext when Thade paraphrases Malcom X ("Violence in defense of apes is no vice"). These are, for the most part, a small annoyance. Some are even amusing. But this need to ape the original leads The Planet of The Apes to include a twist of the tale at the end involving yet another famous monument. This "surprise" ending is a non-sequitur, and it is so wrong-headed that it torpedos the movie. One new aspect to the remake is the introduction of wire-fu. These are some spring-loaded damn monkeys!

Monkey Man: I'll say this, though. This movie LOOKS good. Tim Burton's design sense is all over the film and he even seems comfortable with the "epic" elements at the end of the film (more comfortable than he EVER was staging action scenes for Batman). He even imports his identification with the outcast ("Neither one of us can ever go back," Ari tells Davidson in a fit of alienated longing). But for the first time in his career, Burton is upstaged. Rick Baker is the real star of Planet of the Apes, and it completes Baker's "grand slam," as it were: Baker has now worked on the remakes of all three of the major monkey movies of the Twentieth Century. He built the suit for De Laurentis's King Kong and actually played the title character himself. His work for Mighty Joe Young was nothing short of miraculous. And now we have this. Planet of the Apes is Baker's magnum opus. His monkey make-up actually differentiates between chimps, gorillas, and ourangutans with more than just the color of the hair. When the suits are good (especially on the gorillas), they are astonishing. Baker gets himself into trouble when he creates "pretty" apes. Ari is one of these, but she is the most simian of the lot. Others look exactly like what they are: actresses wearing ape prosthetics.

Performances: Mark Wahlberg is becoming a very capable leading man. He is certainly more appealing as an actor than he ever was as a rap star. He does carry some baggage with him, based on his previous choice of roles, and when he tells Ari that he's going to show her something that will change her world forever, I couldn't help but think of Dirk Diggler and his astounding "equipment." The rest of the human characters are ciphers, although Daena continues a long tradition in moves that holds that the daughters of stone age human chieftains who wear animal skins must be played by blond supermodels. Interesting that she gets completely upstaged by Helena Bonham-Carter's Ari. Even more interesting that Davidson seems more attracted to Ari than to Daena. It's probably just as well that the executives nixed the beastiality undercurrents that were originally in the film. The apes are more interesting than the humans. They get the lion's share of the dialogue and get to look cool to boot. Tim Roth's General Thade is a properly hissable villain, and Michael Clarke Duncan's Attar is more complex than you would expect him to be. All of the ape actors look to have been expertly coached on how to move like a monkey. Instead of the stiff statesmen and soldiers of the original, we have knuckle walking and climbing and jumping and swinging from limb to limb. Combined with the make-up, the illusion is striking.

Monkey on the Back: All of the formidable elements the film brings to bear are undone, however, by the screenplay. You can tell that this movie is a corporate movie because it has an "idiot plot." I'll give you a few examples:

First: the event that sets everything in motion defies belief. Why would an educated and apparently disciplined researcher and Air Force Captain like Davidson take off after a chimp in defiance of orders? Why would he not, instead, say: "It's a shame about Pericles, but he's probably scattered into a million pieces after being hit by an asteroid. Tough old world, but them's the breaks. I'll stay right here like I'm ordered so I won't get killed out there or court martialed when I get back"--as an Air Force Captain in deep space would indeed say? His actions are completely without basis in reality and everyone he knows pays for it. Davidson, as heroes in these sorts of plots are want to do, pays no price for this and feels only a twinge of remorse.

Second: After Davidson tells the kid to stay behind the ship as the apes charge across the plains. Did I mention the kid? There's a kid in this movie. I'm not even sure why he's there, except that he provides the premise for this idiotic scene: Instead of staying back like Davidson told him to do, he charges out to be bait for the apes with his friends. Never mind the fact that Davidson has told him EXPLICITLY that he needed him behind the ship. Once there, his horse stumbles and pins him as the apes rush forward. Davidson, the undisciplined idiot that he has shown himself to be at the beginning of the movie, rushes out to save him, thereby risking his daring plan and the hundreds of lives dependent upon its success. I submit that an Air Force Captain, knowing something about how battles are won and lost, would say: "It's a tough old world and too bad about the kid, but I'm needed to push this here button and make sure that my troops have a fighting chance or else we are all going to die today. There are casualties in every battle. Them's the breaks!" My only theory as to why he does this is that he really DID need the kid behind the ship, but we never find out why. Once again, Davidson pays no price for this lunacy.

Third: Late in the movie, an army of humans flocks to Davidson. They've heard about the man who has come from the stars to save them. Leaving me to wonder: "How did they find out?" The film has carefully laid out the fact that the ONLY people who know about Davidson are his ragtag band of fugitives, who haven't SEEN anyone but ape soldiers as they've made their run for Calima, and General Thade, who we see KILLING the two soldiers who saw the ship land! But the plot demands that the movie end in a clash between an army of apes and an army of humans, hence, they show up "Because It's In The Script!"

Fourth: I won't give away the ending, but I just want to go on record as a saying that the ending to this movie is positively assinine. I mean, the rest of the movie--idiot plot aside--is internally consistent. I know that Rod Serling wrote the screenplay to the original film and all, but really, do we REALLY need a Twilight Zone ending to this movie? The other lapses I might forgive, but this is just too much....

I know that Tim Burton doesn't really care about things like plot mechanics. Most of the time he gets away with it through the sheer force of vision. I think his movies would be enormously better if the writing were better, but what the hell. This time, he ALMOST gets away with it on the strength of the apes themselves. But this time, working with substandard materials catches up to him. The only thing that saves his ass in this instance is the relative weekness of the other movies in the marketplace this summer, most of which ALSO have idiot plots. Isn't there a Screenwriter's Guild rule prohibiting producers collaborating on screenplays? If there isn't, there ought to be.




The Idiot plot was first identified by Science Fiction writer and critic Damon Knight. It consists of any plot in which everything would resolve itself instantly, or plots in which events would not have occurred at all, if everyone in the plot weren't an idiot. The idiot plot has been notably criticized by Siskel and Ebert, and is usually what results when there are three or more writers on a given film and when one or more of those multiple writers happen to be producers. Back.