Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (September 13, 2015)
Some projects take forever to reach the screen. For example, I remember rumors of a new Batman flick for many years before the 1989 hit finally emerged. Another Tim Burton production followed a similarly slow route, but in 2001, we finally got a new version of Planet of the Apes.
A remake of the 1968 classic, this edition starts in the year 2029. Astronaut Leo Davidson (Mark Wahlberg) works on the USAF Oberon, a space research station. The pilot helps train chimps for flight, though he doesnít seem to feel this is a worthwhile task.
When an electromagnetic storm disrupts the station, his superiors want to send his trainee chimp Pericles into it; the simian will pilot a ship to obtain various readings, but Davidson would rather go himself. When Pericles enters the storm, he vanishes.
Against orders, Davidson decides to take his own ship and retrieve the chimp. Inside the storm, he quickly establishes but then loses track of Periclesí pod and gets sucked into some sort of funky space wave. This catapults him years into the future, and he eventually crash lands on a planet.
There he quickly gets sucked into a hunt in which apes chase after humans. Captured along with others, Davidson ends up in the clutches of human slave trader Limbo (Paul Giamatti). A chimp named Ari (Helena Bonham Carter) who toils as a human rights activist arranges to purchase both Leo and sexy local girl Daena (Estella Warren), and they enter the residence of her prominent father Senator Sandar (David Warner).
We meet some other notable members of ape society at Sandarís dinner party. This group includes aggressive, human-hating General Thade (Tim Roth) and his assistant, Attar (Michael Clarke Duncan). They debate human issues, with particular conflict between Ari and Thade. We also see that he desires a more intimate relationship with her, but she resists.
In the meantime, Davidson attempts escape, and he takes a few other humans with him. Ari finds them first, and she strikes a deal with Davidson; he promises that heíll show her something remarkable if she sneaks him out of town. Thade already knows about this potential challenge to ape society, and he seems determined to suppress knowledge of it.
As Davidson leads Ari, her assistant Krull (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), and the humans, a team led by Thade attempts to find and stop them. He gains heightened military powers as he convinces Senator Sandar that only force will bring back Ari alive. The rest of the movie follows this chase along with a pursuit for truth and eventually a battle for supremacy on the planet of the apes.
As Iíve noted many times in other reviews, I used to be in the tank for Tim Burton. I loved Pee-weeís Big Adventure as well as the first two Batman flicks. I also really enjoyed Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, and Mars Attacks.
Since that 1996 flick, however, I viewed Burtonís work as more hit or miss, and the 2001 Apes seems like one of his less scintillating efforts. I want badly to like this flick but canít quite convince myself that itís good.
I also find it tough not to directly compare it to the superior original from 1968, and Burtonís version usually comes up short. On the positive side, the 2001 Apes presents a much stronger vision of ape society. We feel more like it enjoys a real culture, not just a small conglomeration of sets and costumes the filmmakers could afford. Instead, we get a sense that there are many apes and that there are varying strata of the society.
In addition, the newer flickís costumes and make-up totally blow away those of the original. While those elements worked fine for a production from 1968, they donít compare with the generally excellent work on display here.
Some of the elements fare better than others. For example, while Rothís make-up seems shockingly convincing, Carterís comes across as noticeably more artificial. Still, the movie generally executes these elements well and makes the idea of talking apes much more convincing.
Where the 2001 Apes goes astray connects to its story and its focus. Burton delights in the details and pours on little moments like lines from the original movie or quirky aspects of ape society. However, the movie concentrates so heavily on the details that it loses sight of the big picture. Apes doesnít enjoy a very compelling story, and Burton fails to execute it with much depth.
While heavy-handed, the original Apes benefited from social subtext. It examined then current racial conditions through the ape metaphor and proved an effective piece in that regard. The 2001 Apes avoids any such complications and prefers to tell a more straightforward action flick. Thatís fine, I suppose, but it makes this version seem much less rich and intriguing. It also tends to drag at times and rarely picks up much steam.
The presence of the often-bland Wahlberg in the lead doesnít help. Hammy he may have been, at least Charlton Heston added charisma and presence to the old flick. Wahlberg lacks the personality and spark to make us interested in him. The ape supporting cast adds life, especially via deft and effective performances from Carter and Roth, but the lifeless Wahlberg leaves a hole at its center.
The 2001 Planet of the Apes deserves some credit in its attempts to tell its own story and not just reiterate everything from the original. Unfortunately, it only sporadically succeeds. The movie looks great and enjoys occasional solid moments, but it seems unfocused and somewhat bland as a whole. The 2001 Apes remains a fairly average remake.