There must be some sort of rule in moviedom that says not to mess with the classics. No space will be taken up here with the long list of films that have been revisited but shouldn't have been -- thankfully, today's discussion goes in the other direction. This is all about a remake that works quite well. But director Tim Burton (Sleepy Hollow, Edward Scissorhands, Batman) doesn't like the word remake. He prefers to call his Planet of the Apes simply a different version of the film that was released in 1968 and took a pile of money from an unsuspecting public.
Truth be told, the original is best remembered today for it's shockeroo ending and a few choice lines of dialogue than for being a great piece of filmmaking. It actually moves kind of slowly, spends a bit too much time on social and political issues and, due to massive jumps in technology today, doesn't have a very convincing look as far as makeup.
And while Burton's take on the 1963 Pierre Boulle novel has a few glitches concerning confusion within the space-time continuum and what goes on inside electromagnetic storms in outer space, it certainly moves along nicely. The politics are mentioned but kind of glossed over (although there is a subtle study of the apes' class system), and the makeup effects are astonishing.
Once again, we have an American astronaut (Mark Wahlberg, handily and effectively stepping into his first leading role) crash landing on some distant planet (sorry folks, it's not Earth), upon which society now has apes as rulers and humans as less than secondary beings. A brilliantly played out introductory sequence has him crawling from his wreckage only to find himself amidst pandemonium as humans come charging through a thick jungle, chased by all sorts of apes, some on horseback, some jumping from trees, out to capture them and sell them into slavery.
This is just the start of his woes, as he eventually, and against his will, becomes a kind of legend in his own time -- the human who has come from the skies to help save humanity. But that's not what's going on in his head. He just wants to survive and to somehow get home, maybe helping these poor folks along the way.
Because Burton is in charge here, it's his unique vision that emanates from the screen. There are stunning visuals, most of them dark and gloomy looks at this devastated planet, some of them filled with vibrant color, like that lush jungle or some bright tents out in the middle of nowhere. His longtime musical collaborator, Danny Elfman, is absolutely at the top of his game here, delivering a powerful and effective score made up mostly of percussion and blaring horns. Never overbearing, the music perfectly complements the furious action sequences.
Ferocious is a good word to describe the approach Tim Roth has taken to his role of Thade, the angry military chimp who would like to rid his world of humans. Completely unrecognizable, even in voice, under his makeup, Roth swaggers through the movie with scenery-chewing, malevolent glee. Give this guy an early Oscar.
Of the other actors in the film, Paul Giamatti (Private Parts) is hilarious -- due to facial expressions and a plentiful supply of comic relief dialogue -- as the orangutan slave trader Limbo. Helena Bonham Carter manages to present a fantastic range of emotions through her layers of makeup as Ari, the chimp with human rights activism on her mind. Wahlberg fills the first half of the film with unrelenting energy, and is just as convincing when bogged down by his character's tiredness later on. Only relative newcomer Estella Warren (Driven) doesn't add much to the mix beyond looking good in a loincloth.
But even though the acting is quite good, Planet of the Apes isn't about the acting; it's about creating a whole new, whacked out world. It's about accepting the fact that apes can talk -- or, when they get excited, that they resort to grunting or growling or screaming. It's mostly about living up to and beyond what anyone who has seen the original (or any of its weaker sequels) still retains in their minds. Part of that is covered in the new one's line, "Take your hands off of me, you dirty human." Another part is during the cameo by Charlton Heston as Thade's aging ape father (who actually delivers an anti-gun message!).
But most of all, this film, like the original, has a terrific ending, totally unrelated to the original, and leaning much more toward the spirit of the novel.