Planet of the Apes is the one summer epic I pinned my hopes on. First, Franklin Schaffner’s 1968 original had the juice; it still does (rent the DVD and see). Second, director Tim Burton seemed a natural for adapting the Pierre Boulle novel, which he claimed he wanted to re-imagine rather than remake or sequelize. But the shadow of the first Apes, with Charlton Heston as the misanthropic astronaut who crash-lands in apeville, looms large. Sadly, the only improvement on the original is Rick Baker’s spectacular ape makeup. These creatures snarl, swing from trees and bare their teeth with startling authenticity, and each one looks different. Baker’s work is monumental. The rest, with the exception of a battle scene with apes on all fours charging the humans, is monumentally silly.
Burton, aiming for the grandeur he achieved in Batman and Sleepy Hollow, slips instead into the curdled whimsy of his muddled Mars Attacks! The film opens with a monkey in a spacesuit; the simian is being trained for space exploration by Air Force Capt. Leo Davidson (Mark Wahlberg). In the spirit of monkey-see, monkey-do, Leo follows his pet creature onto a strange planet and ends up captured by a ruling class of apes who keep humans as servants or pets.
The ape villain of the piece is Gen. Thade, savagely seethed by Tim Roth. And Michael Clarke Duncan, of The Green Mile, brings a King Kong-like menace and majesty to Attar, the leader of the ape army. Thade lusts after Ari (Helena Bonham Carter) — a hottie ape (get the lipstick) with a passion for human rights. Carter brings a sweet sexiness to the role — we know Ari’s smart because she speaks with a Brit accent — but her eyes show she wants to monkey with Leo, and that drives Thade apeshit (OK, I’ll stop with the puns). Estella Warren, doing human centerfold duty as Daena, also flirts with Leo, but this no-nonsense guy — Wahlberg is uncharacteristically blah — just wants to find his space pod and get back to Earth, where a lame surprise ending awaits (not the Statue of Liberty, but think of another monument).
The new Planet repeatedly references dialogue from the old one. “Take your hands off me, you damn, dirty human,” an ape tells Leo, reversing Heston’s line to an ape. The president of the National Rifle Association makes a cameo appearance, in ape makeup, as Thade’s dying dad, who tells his son about the allure of guns (“They have the power of a thousand spears”). Hilarious.
The movie itself is less so. The script, by William Broyles Jr. (Cast Away), seems to have lost a center of gravity, perhaps because of co-screenwriters Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal, whose credits (Mighty Joe Young, Mercury Rising, The Beverly Hillbillies, etc.) show a lamentable preference for cheap gags. Paul Giamatti gets laughs as Limbo, the ape trader in human slaves, by advising his rich clients to choose younger people as pets: “You don’t want a human teenager in the house.” Them’s the jokes, and the script’s got a million of them, spoken in off-putting slang (an ape wife complains, “I’m having a bad hair day”). Scripts are a problem in Burton movies, with the classic exception of Ed Wood, but the man can’t make a film that is not visually thrilling. With camera ace Philippe Rousselot, Burton creates images of beauty and terror that save Planet from disaster. Call it a letdown, worsened by the forces of shoddy screenwriting. To quote Heston in both films, “Damn them, damn them all.”