I adore Tim Burton as a director and I have seen almost all of his films since his debut Beetlejuice (1988). Now I finally managed to watch one of his few films I hadn’t seen yet, Planet of the Apes (2001), with Mark Whalberg, Tim Roth and Helena Bonham Carter. It was a bit of a disappointment: I knew it wasn’t one of his best films, and although it had been a moderate box office success no sequels had been made, which was rather strange, but I was still hoping for something better that what I got.
And before starting with the plot, let me say that in my opinion Schaffner’s 1968 film starring Charlton Heston had no need for a remake. It had an excellent main idea, it was well crafted, and it has aged well. But since there’s always an insatiable need for remakes, in 2001, Tim Burton worked on this. And what did he do?
Burton (without writing the script, though) made a 50% remake / 50% original movie thanks to a new beginning of the story and a different ending. Here I’m using the adjective “different” but I mean horrible, terrible, and meaningless. I’ll get there. The story begins on the Oberon space station where scientists are studying a strange storm with the help of spacecrafts driven by monkeys used in place of human pilots. When one of those ships disappears, the good captain Leo Davidson (Mark Whalberg) rushes to the rescue. But he disappears too! He lands in a world where monkeys rule and men are treated like wild animals to be tamed. And here starts the remake part of the movie, more or less the same as the original film, with Davidson running off with other humans (including the beautiful and silent Daena, Estella Warren) and also a couple of monkeys (including Ari, Helena Bonham Carter, a human rights activist). The evil Thade (Tim Roth) chases them to a sacred place where they discover amazing things…
The film is visually beautiful with practical effects, with the digital ones reduced to a minimum. As a result, they still hold up very well today, 19 years later. The monkeys are convincing in their movements and features and their voices are the only thing that I didn’t like: everyone talks as if they had handkerchiefs in their mouths! I found it quite irritating… Anyway, I have more problems with the human characters. Whalberg as the protagonist has absolutely no charisma, there’s no comparison with Heston in the original film, and he’s not credible as a leader of the resistance. The others are mere extras who follow him without saying a word, so there’s little to say! By the way, they all seemed a little too clean and beautiful to be savages (Estella Warren could very well move from a chase scene in the forest to a swimsuit commercial without even combing her hair). More could have been done on the level of credibility by showing humans truly abused by apes and forced to live like wild beasts!
The plot is very predictable: first of all it’s a remake, so of course it is, but it’s clear from the beginning what our heroes will find in Calima. The only unforeseeable thing is the final scene that really left me speechless: is that a world in all respects equal to ours but populated by monkeys? Have they evolved in exactly the same way as us humans on Earth, even building objects and cities identical to those we have? WTF? What happened? Did I miss something? Is there even an explanation? I understand that the movie needed a shocking ending to match up with the scream “God damn you, God damn you all to Hell!!!” by Charlton Heston (also repeated here in his cameo), but frankly this is incomprehensible. The ending has nothing to do with the rest of the film, it has no justification in what happens before in the story, and it’s confusing.
I have nothing else to say: I didn’t enjoy Planet of the Apes very much. I believe that I will only remember some beautiful fantasy images with the cities of the monkeys at night and the army scenes (although the final battle is rather disappointing). I appreciated a lot the choice to limit the digital effects as much as possible, but I would have preferred for more work to be done on the story and, above all, on the characters. Ciao!