Planet of the Apes, or, “Damn” those Screenwriters

Burton's Mess

by Donato Totaro Volume 5, Issue 4 / September 2001 9 minutes (2035 words)

I rarely write about films I dislike. It is something I learned from André Bazin, the greatest film critic/writer ever. Life is too short to waste time and energy on negativity. And our mandate at Offscreen has always been to approach Hollywood with extreme caution. Which is why we avoid writing on market-driven films (if anything, they don’t need the publicity, and bad reviews rarely stop the momentum of a box-office smash). But I am making an exception with the latest remake of Planet of the Apes, if only to reaffirm the above and as a form of critical catharsis. In effect, this will come across as more of an editorial in the guise of a review. The point being, please Hollywood, stop making dumb movies. Planet of the Apes is bad, really bad. I will count some of the ways (a complete account would just take too much time). It has been a while since I (and the two people that saw the film with me) have had our (relatively modest) intelligence so offended. This film is not only plain bad, but dumb bad. Everything that made the first film so great is corrupted or emasculated here. Sure there are a few interesting additions (the way the apes attack on all fours), but this film gets everything wrong, dramatically speaking.

The following review will be littered with spoilers that give away “important” plot points. But if this stops a few people from going to see the film, then I have done my good deed of the day. The film begins on a space station, where scientists are using genetically modified chimpanzees as lab mice/test pilots to do dangerous space exploration (they can become violent, as one female scientist ominously foreshadows). Capt. Leo Davidson’s (Mark Wahlberg) favorite chimpanzee is sent out on a space probe and gets lost. Davidson goes out after him against orders (since when does a strong US movie hero take orders?) and gets pulled into the singularity of a black hole by an electrical storm, and catapulted some 2000 years into the future, crash landing on an earth-like planet. Moments later he is caught up in a chase and hunt with humans the quarry and apes the hunters. Right from the start, this scene lacks the menace and tension of the first film’s stalk and hunt scene. And the remake gets it all wrong again when it reverses Heston’s famous line from the original: “Get your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape!”. In the original this moment packs a powerful dramatic wallop because the apes have never heard a human speak. Burton places the line in the mouth of an ape, after the fallen Capt. Davidson touches him. There is a problem dramatically here, in that the audience already knows that the apes can talk, and Davidson can not be as surprised at the revelation after being chased by an obviously evolved species of apes. The other powerful revelatory moment when the pro-human ape scientist Dr. Zira (Kim Hunter) first hears Col. George Taylor (Charlton Heston) talk, is also wasted here. The incarcerated Davidson merely whispers into Ari’s (Helena Bonham Carter) ear, “Please help me,” and not being a scientist, the effect is rather lost on Ari, who is more interested in Walhberg as "Dirk Diggler" than Wahlberg the "human species."

Another mistake with this script is that all the humans talk and appear intelligent (relatively speaking of course), right from the get go. In the original, Taylor, as the talking human, was a rare specimen. And this is precisely what made him such a threat to the conservative ape hierarchy who wanted to hide the ‘truth’ about evolution to reinforce the fundamentalism of their “Bible” and keep its ape society ignorant. But if all the humans can talk and appear intelligent, how can this comply with the ape view of humans as stupid, ignorant, and “without a soul?”

The characterisation in the remake lacks any of the subtlety or wit of the original. Tim Roth is good as the vicious general Thade, but none of the cast or substitute characters are a match for the originals. Wahlberg is so bland that he makes Heston look like Jimmy Cagney. The characterisation of the ape society, so well written and thought out in the original (after all, the script was co-written by Rod Serling, enough said), is reduced to hoary anthropomorphic jokes. What we basically get is human’s in ape suits (not to knock Rick Baker’s make-up, which is great….but then again so was John Chamber’s makeup in 1968). Watch ape kids play basketball, ape teenagers listen to rock music, and loathe that nasty slave trader ape. Instead of the engaging chemistry between Roddy McDowall as Dr. Cornelius and Kim Hunter as Dr. Zira, we get Ari as Helena Bonham Carter playing, well, Helena Bonham Carter, a misfit young woman with stringy hair and messy clothes to match. And if you thought Linda Harrison as Nova was bad, wait until you see blond bombshell Estella Warren as (believe it or not) love interest Daena, daughter of Kris Kristofferson, looking like the forgotten prisoner. After watching Warren ‘act’ and pine over Wahlberg for two hours, you’ll really wish the human’s could not talk in this one. Warren’s physical skills make Linda Harrison’s miming ability look like Giulietta Masina!

This film may be made 33 years after the original, but in terms of representation of women, this one sets the cause back to the fifties. In the original, Dr. Zira was a bright and funny zoologist, projecting a complex mixture of scientific interest, disgust, and sexual curiosity toward the human Taylor. In this film the ape Ari and the human Daena are reduced to stereotypical love interests competing for “the man.” Who in the end, of course, reconcile their differences when Ari saves Daena from death during a battle (an all-too obvious symbol for the film’s final humanist message of apes and humans living together peacefully….let me get my tissue please). You will not believe how many times the film cuts to Daena’s hurt/pining face, immediately after Ari has expressed an interest in Davidson. I counted 4, and after the second time felt like yelling out, “we get the point!”).

I thought it was a nice touch having Heston in the small role as Thade’s dying warrior father, reciting his famous final line (“…damn those humans”) in another context. But again, the film gets it all wrong dramatically and thematically. In the original it comes at the end, when Taylor discovers that he has been on earth all along and that human technology has led to its own destruction. In this version the line comes as Heston is warning his son about the human mastery of weaponry, and implies that this is the evolutionary lineage that can propel the humans above the apes. In the remake the apes carry no guns or firearms. The last thing the dying father does is divulge to his son the gun he has long hidden in a porcelain container. The “damn the humans” line is still directed against the destructive powers of military technology, even though it seems paradoxical coming from a great “man” general/warrior. But the same technology that Heston warns against and that provided the punch to the original cautionary conclusion, is used by the film’s hero Davidson to overpower the apes and to eventually escape. US technology is again glorified. When he comes across the fallen space station that has been sitting in the desert for 2,000 years, all that is needed is a bit of dusting to make everything operational (even the gas tank is full!). Which reminded me of the scene in Allen’s Sleeper (1973), where one turn of the key starts a Volkswagen Beetle that has been sitting in a cave for 200 years. But I digress, that was a comedy, this is not.

The most aggravating thing about this film, with the huge budget and Tim Burton at the helm, is that this is Filmmaking 101. Outside of a few impressive landscape shots that recall Burton’s gothic touch, Burton’s stamp is no where to be seen. The best piece of art direction comes in the ape military camp scenes, with the striking red-lit tents set off against the dark desert landscape. But for this viewer, the ape city design can not compare to the Gaudi-esque/Arabic architecture of the original. In fact, this version lacks any unique visual or stylistic flair, and I found the cinematography to be generally murky and uninspired. Perhaps Burton sensed he had a clinker of a script, because two-thirds in the film becomes an all-out chase-action film with far less dependence on dialogue.

After dragging our dumb-shocked bodies out of the theatre, the three of us began trying to make sense of the film’s plot, before realizing that we had probably put far more thought into it than the scriptwriters. The first big revelation is that the genetically modified apes on the initial space station were the genetic seeds that evolved to form the current planet’s society. The apes became aggressive, the space station crashed, the apes destroyed the humans, and the rest is evolutionary history. Fine, but if this planet is not earth, and all the humans on board were destroyed, then were did all the humans come from? Secondly, from what we saw in the opening, all the apes on board were chimpanzees. So how did all the varied species of apes we see on the planet evolve from (gorillas, orangutans, gibbons, mandrills, and spider monkeys)? And if this planet is earth (the film never makes this clear, but it probably is not, given that we see two moons orbiting)), then how did a few genetically modified apes defeat 6 billion people? The big surprise ending sees Davidson escape the planet on the initial lost space probe programmed by the chimpanzee to re-enter the electrical storm that took him off the course of time. He seems to be going back in time, or so reads the chronometer, of which we can not be certain given that this is a ship and not a time machine. He crashes on what looks like earth, conveniently right on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. He walks up the steps and, surprise, surprise, sitting on the throne is “Ape Lincoln,” in the image of psycho ape warrior Thade. They should have made him in the image of the comic-relief ape slave trader, but that bit of irony is probably beyond the committee of scriptwriters who penned this. Washington’s finest arrive screeching in their police vehicles, and out come a bunch of apes in blue. Is this our earth gone wrong? Has Davidson slipped through a wormhole into an alternate universe earth? Has his bumbling back and forth in time somehow changed the course of history? Did Thade somehow travel back to earth in the space station, or Davidson’s waterlogged space probe before Davidson and change the course of history? Should we care if the screenwriters didn’t?

During the screening of the film we were sitting not far from a couple of baseball-capped men who were chatting incessantly during the trailers and opening credits. I kept biting my lips waiting to see if they would stop when the film proper began. They did quiet down at first. We soon discovered that they were drunk, and still drinking beer. At one point we hear a loud bottle crash on to the floor and the faint aroma of yeast, hops, and barley wafts through the air. After the film I find out from the person sitting closest to them that at some point they fell asleep, which would have been a relief if not for the loud snoring. Before they fell asleep, however, on several occasions one of them opined loud enough for everyone in the theatre to hear, “This is the shittiest film I have ever seen!” At times like this, you just have to agree with the adage, “everyone is a critic.”

Planet of the Apes, or, “Damn” those Screenwriters

Donato Totaro has been the editor of the online film journal Offscreen since its inception in 1997. Totaro received his PhD in Film & Television from the University of Warwick (UK), is a part-time professor in Film Studies at Concordia University (Montreal, Canada) and a longstanding member of AQCC (Association québécoise des critiques de cinéma).

Volume 5, Issue 4 / September 2001 Film Reviews   remakes   reviews_specific_film   science fiction   tim burton