There are few times I find myself happier than when I expect a film to be bad, and it turns out to be of actual quality. It’s a rare occurrence, usually I am not too far away from the general consensus of the audience and even if I am, the critics tend to represent my opinion more reliably. “Planet of the Apes”, which was directed by none other than Tim Burton (Frankenweenie, Edward Scissorhands), isn’t just not terrible, it is a genuinely good film that just suffers from a few evident flaws that cause it to lag just behind the heights of the original.
Captain Leo Davidson (Mark Wahlberg) crash lands on the planet after trying to rescue a chimp that was scouting an electromagnetic storm for the crew of the Oberon, a space station in the year 2029. Davidson is quickly assaulted after leaving his vessel by a group of horse riding apes. Captured, he garners the attention of Ari (Helena Bonham Carter) and General Thane (Tim Roth). Ari is a human sympathiser, Thane’s disposition towards humans is a little more extreme and reflects that of most of the other ape inhabitants. Eventually Davidson is freed by Ari and Attar (Michael Clarke Duncan) and from this point on they are on the run until Davidson can supposedly free the humans and himself by escaping in the Oberon which his tracking device has picked up on the planet. The plot is simple enough and easy to follow, but also satisfying enough for it to not feel like an afterthought.
The lofty philosophical heights the original film reached in 1968 aren’t surpassed here, it doesn’t actually come close. “Planet of the Apes” is best described as an action film and rightly so. Tim Burton makes the action suitably frantic and entertaining by doing something the original franchise only glossed over. Making the apes not just look like apes, but feel like them too. When there is a chase sequence the apes will go onto all fours and do a terrifying sprint towards their enemy. When they attack they can attack with severe brutality, and Tim Burton makes the apes at least appear as strong as apes really are. Even chimpanzee’s are deceptively strong and could kill a human in an instant if they wished.The inherent power of the apes makes them far more terrifying than they used to be. Tim Roth does a brilliant job as General Thane, the primary antagonist. He snarls, grunts and glares to assert his dominance and he always feels as though he could flip from relaxed to craving the stench of death at any second. Every time a human walks close to him I worry for their safety, because just when you think he can be reasonable with those loyal to him he takes that idea and wraps it around his dead minions body, just for good measure. He might be slightly too close to being a caricature of a stereotypical villain but I think that’s what he was going for and he absolutely owns the role. Worthy of note is that I only knew who these actors were because of the credits. While watching, if I hadn’t of known prior, I wouldn’t have known who was behind the make-up and that will likely stop the “Oh look it’s that girl from Harry Potter!”, which worries some film makers due to the apparent loss of immersion.
The actual narrative itself is a mixed bag, Davidson is very averagely played by Mark Wahlberg and there is almost nothing about him that is particularly likeable. He is just a means to an end, just some human to root for because he actually speaks. No no no, I don’t mean the rest of the humans are mute like in the original franchise. They just have absolutely nothing meaningful to say ever, they rarely speak and when they do I wish they hadn’t. Estella Warren plays Daena, the obligatory human love interest for Davidson. She has the personality of a politician with Aspergers syndrome and the worth of a journalist who’s scared of writing utensils, and makes the same stupid blank faces both of these examples would. There are other humans that travel with Davidson but they are such non-characters that to talk about them would be an exercise in futility. However, for everything the humans don’t do the apes manage in spades. Ari is an interesting character with issues that are spawning from the fact that Thade wishes to have her as his bride, which conflicts well with her compassion for humans which instantly makes her likeable as she is defending our race from the vile apes. Her reasons for having compassion for humans is touched on and teased but never fully explained and that really bothered me, now that I think about it. Paul Giamatti plays Limbo, a corrupt orang-utan that works in the human slave trade, He is a wonderfully slippery character and essentially serves as the comic relief and I did get a few laughs out of him.
The movie does often flirt with controversy and sometimes gives the illusion that it has something to say. For example, there is an odd love triangle between Ari, Daena and Davidson. The perceptive ones of you out there will have realised that’s two humans one ape. Maybe Burton was trying to find a way to portray the relationship as potentially not diabolically strange? Whatever he had to say, it got lost in translation because the triangle is underdeveloped. I do think he succeeded in not making it disturbing and it does end up feeling natural in a way. As odd as that sounds, and you may disagree with me upon watching, I wouldn’t blame you.
Was I ever bored during the two hour run time? Absolutely not. I love that Burton thought that doing a remake didn’t mean taking the exact plot of the original and just adding his own spin. “Planet of the Apes” feels like a completely worthy addition to the long running franchise and bucks the trend of coming up with new ideas for each instalment. I did like the ending as well although it confused the hell out of me, and don’t worry, the ending isn’t the same as in the original, not even close really. The pacing I found to be just fine, they spent enough time in the ape city before it got tiring and they weren’t wandering around for too long either. Some scenes were a tad ridiculous. Take the scene where Thade gets angry and runs up walls screaming and knocking down flaming chandeliers only to land back on his horse and say “sorry” like it was nothing. It feels incredibly artificial and I didn’t like it one bit.
Unexpected surprise, as stupid as those two words put together might sound, is a wonderful thing and I’m glad to say that I experienced it whilst watching “Planet of the Apes” and I hope that you do too. Please don’t come after me in my sleep, each to their own everyone, each to their own.