Friday, August 05, 2011

Zaki's Retro Review: Planet of the Apes (2001)

When Roger Ebert reviewed Tim Burton's remake of Planet of the Apes (dubbed a "re-imagining" by the director) upon its release in 2001, he said, somewhat prophetically, "Ten years from now, it will be the 1968 version that people are still renting." Well, it's ten years later, and even though the Burton Apes debuted to a record opening weekend and left theaters with a very healthy domestic tally of $175 million, I think the ultimate measure of Ebert's words can be found in the fact that the franchise is being revived yet again with an entry that's steeped in homage to the Franklin Schaffner original, while entirely sidestepping Burton's brief, ignominious Apes interlude. So, what happened?

When the '01 model Planet of the Apes hit theaters, it came on the heels of a torturous decade-and-change spent languishing in development hell. At various points and through various Fox regimes, Peter Jackson, Oliver Stone, and James Cameron all lined up, like the passengers in Airplane!, to take a whack, and all eventually threw their hands in the air and walked away, whether because of budgetary or storytelling limitations. It wasn't until a script by William Broyles in the late '90s caught the attention of studio execs and Burton that the long-promised Apes revival suddenly became a reality (very suddenly, as it was raced into production to beat a threatened writers' strike that never happened anyway).

With its box office haul, a sequel (or four) would seem to have been all but assured, but in what's an exceedingly rare move for a Hollywood studio, Fox execs looked past the tickets sales to the near-total audience apathy on the other side, and decided it was best to let sleeping apes lie. For my end, I've gone into excruciating detail about the "Phantom Menace moment" I had after watching Apes Redux during its run, so I won't reprise that sad song here, but it might be helpful to conduct an autopsy of the deceased, to figure out precisely how and where the new Apes went so badly off course that it effectively rendered the brand a "Forbidden Zone."

The story begins in the year 2020 with USAF officer Leo Davidson (Mark Wahlberg), stationed on the deep space station Oberon, where genetically enhanced primates are being taught to fly spaceships and handle complex systems. When his pet chimpanzee is sent out to investigate an anomalous "time storm" and disappears, Davidson goes after him and is pulled in as well, crashing on an alien planet some 600 years later. Escaping from his battered pod, Davidson encounters a group of ragged humans (not mute, not animals) being pursued by -- you guessed it -- intelligent apes, in a jungle hunt led by the chimpanzee General Thade (Tim Roth) and his second-in-command, the gorilla Attar (Michael Clarke Duncan).

Captured and taken to the apes' city, Davidson is sold to the feisty Ari (Helena Bonham Carter), the chimpanzee daughter of a powerful senator (David Warner), who believes that apes shouldn't be treating humans like animals (which makes sense since they're not, functioning instead more like a servant class). Freeing himself from his bondage, Davidson leaves the city with a mixed group of ape and human (including model Estella Warren as Daena, the love interest in which he has no interest) and heads to "Calima," the forbidden territory. There, he discovers the decayed wreck of what was once his own space station, which he learns fell into the anomaly while searching for him and was propelled thousands of years into the past. There, its cargo of hyper-intelligent apes eventually overpowered their human masters and subjugated them (with "Calima" a bastardization of "CAution: LIve aniMAls.").

After a battle royale with the ape army that ends with Davidson outwitting Thade and trapping him in the wreckage of the crashed Oberon, and the rest of the apes becoming convinced (not sure how, exactly) that they must learn to live in peace with humans. Davidson then uses his conveniently just-returned chimp's pod to go back into the time storm and head for home. Greeted by an entourage of police and first responders at the feet of the Lincoln Memorial, Davidson is shocked to learn that during the time he was gone, the Earth has become a monkey planet as well, and Honest Abe's countenance on the statue has been carved away and replaced by that of General Thade, mocking our hero from across time.

Fade to black. Cue the WTF.

Casting my mind back to ten years ago, I can very clearly remember the pall of silence that fell over the opening night audience as they tried to process and puzzle out clues to help that ending make even a lick of sense. Although it ostensibly pays homage to the very-similar ending in Boulle's book, the presence of Thade is a (snicker) monkey-wrench that even Burton himself hadn't thought through, later admitting it was thrown in for whoever did a sequel to figure out. In fact, the only way I was able to kinda-sorta understand it was because of an insert included with the DVD release that mapped out the various paths of time and space travel, and which implies that at some point after the events of the film, Thade found and repaired the downed space pod, followed Davidson's trajectory, returned to Earth before him, and screwed up the timeline.

Now, that's a whole lot of work the audience has to do on their own for not a lot of payoff, and it nicely encapsulates for us everything that's wrong with the 2001 Planet of the Apes. The first movie was primarily about crafting an "unusual and important" event that would stick with audiences long after they left the theater, with sequels not even entering into the equation until much later. The remake, on the other hand, was engineered by committee (including producer Richard Zanuck, who greenlit the '68 version when he headed the studio) for that specific end, thus putting the franchise before the film, and making for a completely disposable cinematic experience. The original's ending continues to inspire awe and surprise even now, but processing the end of the remake is like doing long division: "So wait, how did...and he left after...and afterwards he...uh huh, uh huh. Yep, that sucks."

On the plus side, the makeup appliances created by Rick Baker are truly impressive, and Danny Elfman's score makes for a very nice contrast with Goldsmith's, but that's pretty much where any positive comparions begin and end. I'm already on record several times with my belief that the 1968 Apes is darn near perfect, but the larger question that applies to any remake isn't about how much to change, but whether those changes are in service to the story. And at every juncture that matters, the Burton version lags far, far behind its forebear. What Schaffner understood and executed so brilliantly was the need to not only convey a sense of the isolation and hopelessness of our hero's circumstances, but also to get a clear sense of the characters.

While Chuck Heston (who makes a memorable cameo here as Thade's ape father -- named Zaius, no less!) was given a rich arc to follow as the misanthrope who left the Earth out of disgust at his fellow man and is now forced to become humanity's last champion, Davidson lands in this mess because he misses his monkey. And that's it. He has no motivation other than his immediate need to return to his ship, and as a result, he's in a state of constant thrust, constant forward-motion. When he realizes that the Oberon crashed because of him, and thus he's responsible for the whole situation, what should be a shocking moment carries surprisingly little weight, because we have no particular investment in his character

In terms of the cast, Tim Roth is a particular standout, chewing the scenery with gusto, and utliizing Baker's makeup to its absolute fullest. In fact, everyone in the ape ensemble fares reasonably well. The humans? Not so much. Pity poor Wahlberg, who we know is capable of far better but who's given nothing to work with. Part of the blame for this can be laid at the script by Broyles and Lawrence Konner & Mark Rosenthal, which seems to have designs on being an interplanetary epic only tangentially connected to Apes (Broyles' initial draft was billed as the first chapter in the "Chronicles of Ashlar"), with none of the social commentary and nuance that helped make the original the timeless classic that it is, and no sense of peril or stakes beyond your run-of-the-mill summer blockbuster.

But for all the story failings, the bigger share of blame for the project's creative inertia must be apportioned to Burton, whose trademark quirkiness and stylistic excess are painfully mismatched here. What becomes clear upon reflection is that Burton never really "got" Apes, with his armies of jumping, swinging, and shrieking simians seemingly an attempt to fix what he felt was a major ding on the first one -- that they didn't act enough like apes. This, of course, was the whole point, whether we're talking about Boulle's book or any iteration that followed, and Burton's failure to grasp that tells us a great deal about how wrongheaded an endeavor this ended up being, and that applies whether we're talking about the dank, murky aesthetic, or the stage-bound, claustrophobic nature of the production.

Clearly, Burton's experience making the movie was as unpleasant for him as watching it was for us, responding with "I'd rather jump out a window" when asked if he'd be a part of what most people assumed was an inevitable follow-up. That a sequel never materialized is an indication that those audiences who'd turned out in droves for that big opening weekend were there entirely on the strength of the brand, and the fact that the audience so quickly vanished tells you that the end result simply didn't measure up to the expectations the brand carried with it. But as a studio-owned commodity, Planet of the Apes was simply too valuable to stay on the shelf for long, and after a decade-long interregnum, Fox would get another opportunity to revive their once-prized property.

To Be Continued...


J.R. LeMar said...

The problem with the ending was that the Lincoln statue specifically named "Thade". If it hadn't, and had just been a generic ape, then the ending would have fit as within the original novel, just meaning that Leo had returned to Earth in the future and now apes had taken over that world too.

Zaki said...

I agree that if they'd simply left "Thade" off the statue it would have made slightly more sense. But even then, it wouldn't have been an earned ending. If they'd thrown in something about how they were on the space station because people were protesting the genetically engineered chimps or something like that, it would at least have provided some sense of where the ending was coming from. And with Leo being such a total non-character, even the Boulle ending wouldn't have had much impact.