In 2001, an Ape Odyssey | Film Review | Indy Week
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In 2001, an Ape Odyssey 

The remake of a film that, in 1968, shared screen time with Kubrick's sci-fi classic fails to build on the original's strengths

For anyone who relished the idea of Tim Burton remaking one of the most durable sci-fi films of the '60s, the new Planet of the Apes must be counted a disappointment. Not a horrible letdown, mind you. The interstellar special-effects spectacular has enough going for it to justify a look-see by fans of the original or the director. But it is a long way from the imaginative wizardry of Burton's best work, and though it entails a number of technical advances (especially in the area of makeup) beyond Franklin J. Schaffner's 1968 Planet, it hardly bodes to duplicate the excitement or success of that movie.

The original Planet was, of course, no species of cinematic art, a desciption that belongs to another, very different sci-fi film of 1968, 2001: A Space Odyssey. The two movies, however, are not entirely polar opposites. Both offer imaginative commentary on the relationship between humans and apes, and in so doing, both reveal themselves as artifacts of the century in which Darwin's theories of human evolution leapt beyond the purview of specialists to become a widespread popular orthodoxy.

Does one believe these curious Darwinian ideas, which still have a rather far-fetched ring to them? In answering that question, it makes a big difference whether one is a scientist who is familiar with the technical literature on the subject, or whether one is a layperson. If you happen to be the latter, you accept the Darwinian postulate as a matter of faith and on the authority of others; in other words, you join a church run by people who act as if they don't believe in churches. But they do; they believe in their church, and they want as much of the world to belong to it as possible.

If we accept the tenets of that church, and agree that the ideas clustered under the heading "evolution" are precisely, verifiably true while those associated with the traditional notion labeled "God" are vague and insubstantial if not wholly erroneous, what does that imply for the collective psychology of humanity? Is humankind liberated from medieval superstition or shackled to its animal origins?

Both 2001 and Planet of the Apes deal with these questions, and the superiority of the former film, one mark of its status as art, is that it understands the metaphysical dimension and implications of its enterprise. In fact, Kubrick's movie has the extraordinary audacity to construct a philosophical bridge between religion and science. Rejecting the aggressive church-of-Darwin insinuation that one must choose between "evolution" and "God," it nervily believes in both, asserting that evolution was created and stage-managed by God (albeit one who's far more Neoplatonic than Judeo-Christian). Kubrick's apeman is programmed to evolve into man-the-maker in order to build the cosmic ladder that will return him to his Maker.

Planet of the Apes, on the other hand, shows what happens when that Maker is removed from the equation. Suppressing the metaphysical questions it implies, Schaffner's film nevertheless conjures a great, virtually inevitable emblem for the age of Darwin: It imagines man as literally subordinate to the ape that scientism has designated as humanity's new "father." And there is a curious (or again, inevitable) consequence to this reversal: misanthropy, a kind of species self-loathing. Recall that when Charlton Heston's astronaut lands on that strange planet in the original film, he's originally very down on humanity. Then, in realizing that the local humans are under the boot of the planet's ape population, he emerges as their Spartacus-like leader and discovers a new belief in humankind. Yet that faith abruptly collapses into a bleaker version of his initial cynicism at the film's end, when he sees that the battle he's fighting was actually lost thousands of years before--the ape-run planet isn't some distant orb, but Earth itself, far in the future.

You might say that the film's final image, of Heston coming upon a ruined Statue of Liberty, offers a great capstone to the allegory, signaling that humanity's ruin came from replacing God with a totem of its own freedom. But Planet of the Apes hardly sent viewers out of the theater pondering that foreboding message, and its careful avoidance of metaphysical implication wasn't the only reason why. Unlike 2001, which develops ideas from A to Z according to the logic of drama, Planet delimits and fetishizes ideas in order to use them--over and over, if need be--for purposes of amusement. Co-written by Rod Serling, Schaffner's movie very naturally turned into a succession of sequels and, not one, but two TV series.

For that longevity, credit belongs to the central idea-image, which remains potent both despite and because of being reduced to an entertainment trope. As long as Darwinism reigns as a secular faith, the depiction of humans subjugated to apes will surely retain its power to amuse, alarm and appall. Yet the idea's open-endedness is also one reason why, 33 years after its cinematic debut, Tim Burton seems at a loss as to what to do with it.

Burton's last film, Sleepy Hollow, was a dazzler, one of the best creations yet by a filmmaker who's among Hollywood's few mega-budget auteurs. Burton's genius lies in conjuring fairy tale-like worlds that span both child and adult levels of credulity and interest, and that feature his trademark blend of the creepy and the whimsical, Gothic grotesquerie and magical fantasy. In Planet, he appears largely uninterested in the canvas he's given; though never less than skillful, the film is perhaps the least visually distinctive that he's ever made. More to the point, Burton seems hamstrung by a script (by William Broyles Jr., Lawrence Connor and Mark Rosenthal) that plays like one of those Hollywood made-by-committee jobs, full of clichés and expected moves.

The tale starts as astronaut Leo Davidson (Mark Wahlberg) is on a spaceship training chimps to pilot probes. When one of his charges goes astray, Leo jumps into a pod, goes after him and finds himself crashing through a time warp. Landing on an uncharted planet, he's quickly swept up in a group of primitive humans who are being hunted down by apes who intend to sell them as slaves. Hauled into a simian city, he encounters an ape population that includes a vicious power-hungry general (Tim Roth), and a bleeding-heart female (Helena Bonham Carter) who wants to help the humans.

The story here is so familiar that you can probably guess most of the rest. (I won't give away the ending except to say that it involves a national monument other than Miss Liberty.) Yep, Leo leads the humans on an escape from the apes' city. Yep, they're pursued by Roth and helped on their way by Bonham Carter (who gives the film's best performance, incidentally). And yep, there's a climactic battle that pits the bedraggled escapees against an army of angry apes.

Besides the formulaic predictability of all this, what's most dismaying is that the writers haven't bothered to put a new spin on the basic metaphor, which resonates wildly in various directions, some intended, others obviously not. At times, the apes-humans dichotomy is played for the usual easy ironies and facile social comment. At other times, it brings to mind the ancient Romans and Christians, the American slave trade and its opponents, modern flare-ups over race and inequality, even animal-rights arguments. In being so diverse, these suggestions add up to nothing in particular.

Granted, Hollywood movies in general are far less adept at developing ideas than at portraying characters, but there too Planet ends up more tepid than imaginative. The film's script does no favors to likable Mark Wahlberg, who will suffer numerous unfavorable comparisons to the original's Charlton Heston. Of the 1968 film, Pauline Kael wrote, "With his perfect, lean-hipped powerful body, Heston is a god-like hero; built for strength, he's an archetype of what makes Americans win. He doesn't play a nice guy; he's harsh and hostile, self-centered and hot-tempered."

That description points up what the original Planet had beyond a great concept and pounds of sharply sculpted latex makeup: a gritty, edgy, invariably palpable sense of character and its discontents. Strip away the allegory and even the sci-fi premise, and you had a drama about an ornery jerk of a guy who wasn't sure he liked other people. Like countless westerns, it's the story of a quintessential American loner reaching the end of his existential tether. They used to make movies like that in the '60s. Here in 2001--2001!--they make movies about nice guys who're fond of their trained chimps. Let no one suppose that the idea of evolution applies to the arts. EndBlock

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