By Elford Alley. This is RETROGRADING, where we’d rather be watching the original.
THE FILM: Planet of the Apes
THE TIME: 2001. If there was ever a filmmaker with a passion for yesteryear cheese and a distinct aesthetic more qualified to reboot Planet of the Apes, Tim Burton was once certainly it. Judging simply from his iconic filmography from the 80s through the 90s, he seemed like the obvious (and perfect) choice. Planet of the Apes, an earnest and hokey series where each successive film became more interesting as the budgets shrank, seemed primed for a reboot. Unfortunately, things were about to go terribly wrong.
RECOLLECTIONS: In 2011, the world stood in shock: A completely unnecessary prequel to a dead franchise was actually pretty good. Following Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes elevated expectations, building an audience clambering for this summer’s War for the Planet of the Apes. However, it wasn’t ten years prior that Tim Burton had debuted his own reimagining of the 1968 classic, which has since all but vanished from the moviegoing public’s memory.
Did the film bomb? Yes and no: While it enjoyed a solid run in theaters, it never could rise above its myriad of shortcomings or it’s oversized $100 million dollar budget.
One major failing was the attempt to create a new version of Hollywood’s most iconic twist ending. The 1968 twist, where it’s revealed that humans had destroyed themselves and the hero (Charlton Heston) had been on Earth the whole time, was replaced by the 2001 version, where the hero (Mark Wahlberg) escapes the titular planet and returns to Earth to find himself face-to-face with an ape-styled Lincoln monument, surrounded by ape cops.
Not only did this fall very short of the original ending, it was incredibly confusing. Did the villain of the film, General Thade, travel back before Captain Leo Davidson? Did Thade travel back before the Civil War? Did the conquering apes simply carve the Lincoln monument in Thade’s honor? If so, how did Thade conquer the world? Did Tim Burton straight up steal this from a comic book written by Kevin Smith?
Particularly odd is that this film was the end result of nearly 20 years of attempted reboots from nearly everyone in Hollywood, including Sam Raimi, Peter Jackson, Michael Bay, Chris Columbus, and yes, even Oliver Stone. After all that time and effort, the film we received was rife with cheesy jokes (they smoke pot and do weird sex dances!) and implied interspecies attractions (despite being told to cut the non-human love interest for the human protagonist, Mark Wahlberg’s character still shares icky tension with Helena Bonham Carter’s ape character).
But should Burton bear the brunt of the blame? The production was incredibly rushed, with sets being built before a script had been completed. Literally every aspect of the film was pushed to make a July 2001 release date, as Mark Wahlberg said in a 2011 interview regarding Rise of the Planet of the Apes: “I haven’t seen it yet, but I heard it was pretty damn good… Ours wasn’t. They didn’t have the script right. Fox Studios had a release date before Tim Burton had shot a foot of film. They were pushing him and pushing him in the wrong direction…”
Amid all this disappointment, the set and costume designs turned out great. Tim Burton did try to tackle interesting ideas, such as the conflict between faith and science, but those ideas never gelled. Any positive that came our way was undercut by something negative. The makeup was great, but understanding the characters when they spoke was difficult. The humor never lands, the drama turns into an unintentional comedy, and attempts at pathos fail at every turn. Start to finish, the film failed on every level, offering only an overlong, bloated movie with poor casting choices and ridiculous creative ones.
THE DIRECTOR: Tim Burton has reached a vilified, Lucasian stage of his career. He feels less like a visionary and more like an imitator, someone who doesn’t understand what made Ed Wood and Beetlejuice classics, but continues to ape those films’ aesthetics. Of course, 2003’s Big Fish and 2014’s Big Eyes were standouts, but in between Planet of the Apes and now, his films feel like a parody, a parade of pale people and botched whimsy. Perhaps the studio’s ceaseless pressure and meddling broke something in the director.
THE CAST: Planet of the Apes offered audiences the chance to hear how Academy Award winners would sound giving lines with retainers in their mouths. The most talented actors and actresses in the film are constantly struggling underneath ape makeup, including Helena Bonham Carter as a figure sympathetic to the plight of the humans, Paul Giamatti as a soulless slaver, and Michael Clarke Duncan as a devout gorilla soldier.
The one stand-out in the film is also the most ludicrous, Tim Roth as the cruel General Thade. But at least his scene-chewing brings some desperately needed energy to the proceedings. Otherwise, we just have a groanworthy cameo from Charlton Heston and the film’s two major characters, Wahlberg’s Leo Davidson and Daena (played by Estella Warren), boasting the charisma of Ikea furniture.
NOSTALGIA-FEST OR REPRESSED NIGHTMARE? Repressed Nightmare. Nothing on this film works.
RETROGRADE: 1 out of 10