Perhaps it’s only natural that a director who has spent a career making films about alienated humans would eventually turn his lens onto a story in which humans are aliens.
The core dynamic of Tim Burton’s career hangs upside-down in his rethinking of the 1968 camp chimp classic Planet of the Apes, and much thought and care has gone into the enormous task of suspending disbelief—normally a job for which Burton has little patience. For this film to have any chance of surviving in a suffocatingly cynical age, Burton realized the audience must be open to the idea that the adversaries and captors of heroic human stiff Leo Davidson (Mark Wahlberg) are apes, not just people wearing ape suits.
From virtuoso makeup man Rick Baker to an army of set and costume designers, an unbelievable amount of energy is devoted to building a better simian. The costumes are fantastic down to the smallest details, and the world in which these apes live is an evocative, dystopian wonderland of sepias, mauves and thick, matted black hair. The film refers to the original only in tangents as Burton creates yet another profoundly vivid world.
It all works … and yet, when you step back and take in its entirety, it doesn’t. After serving his macabre visual treats, Burton stumbles; his film is social commentary bogged down in action-film minutiae, a sweeping adventure story that slows every time our heads snap up at the realization that such classically trained actors as Helena Bonham Carter and Tim Roth are dressed up like monkeys.
Despite every effort to the contrary, Planet of the Apes is still unintentionally funny, though not nearly to the extent of the original. But this self-aware touch may be part of the film’s uncanny appeal to the audiences that gave it one of the biggest debut weekends in movie history.
The latest castaway in Burton’s imagination is Marky Mark, who plays an astronaut-type guy in the near future who blasts into space. With a completely straight face, he crash-lands on a planet ruled by apes who despise humans as sub-civilized, dirty creatures possibly incapable of sentient thought (insert your own college fraternity/La Verkin joke here). Leo is captured by the apes, along with a genteel father named Karubi (Kris Kristofferson) and his hotter-than-hell daughter Daena (model Estella Warren). The apes needn’t wonder: Surely any species capable of independent thought wouldn’t curse its members with such pretentiously spelled names as Karubi and Daena.
But the apes aren’t convinced, and it falls to Leo to save the day by leading the humans to freedom. He’s joined by Ari (Bonham Carter), a benevolent chimpanzee who’s got a severe case of jungle fever, if you know what we mean. Their adversary is General Thade, played miles over the top by Roth. Thade is the least Burtonian character of the bunch, simultaneously erudite and cold-blooded—a vicious antidote for the alienated humanity that permeates Burton’s films.
Whenever things get too heavy, the script unleashes a self-aware howler or two (“Extremism in the defense of apes is no vice,” Thade snarls). Usually, such a broadly veering tone means disaster, but this film is so off-kilter from the start, we’re more receptive to Burton’s decision to make a self-aware morality play disguised as an adventure film with a corny sense of humor. When you’ve got people in spectacular ape costumes running around, much can be forgiven, even if the entire film can’t be embraced.
Burton has such a determinedly morbid sensibility and a grim Gothicism in everything he touches that it’s positively baffling why Hollywood studios have been handing him the keys to huge-budget blockbusters for a decade. But he thrives because he always creates a vaguely unsettled mood that suggests equal parts possibility and dread. The dread is realized when Charlton Heston shows up for a cameo (and he’s actually got a gun!). Some of the possibilities also are realized, including a ballsy surprise ending that’s silly but fun, with more possibilities still floating in space, waiting to find a film that suits them.
Burton tries to keep his adventure film moving alongside his social satire, but the script just doesn’t have enough imagination to hold our attention in the same way as the sets and costumes. Planet of the Apes puts on its monkey suit and has nowhere to go … but it still looks great.
Planet of the Apes (PG-13) HH1/2 Directed by Tim Burton. Starring Mark Wahlberg, Helena Bonham Carter and Tim Roth.