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Sunday 5 August 2001

Planet of the Apes

Directed by Tim Burton
Written by William Broyles Jr., Lawrence Konner and Mark D. Rosenthal, based on the novel by Pierre Boulle
Starring Mark Wahlberg, Tim Roth, Helena Bonham Carter, Michael Clarke Duncan, Kris Kristofferson
Rating: PG-13
Length: 110 min

Reviewed by John Shirley

(Exclusive to Locus Online)

My current theory about Tim Burton is that what matters to him most is atmosphere, satisfying dark imagery, and twisted humor— story is just an afterthought. He’s a master of atmosphere, and the rest, but story consistently eludes him. Sleepy Hollow, for example, was muddled, inconsistent, logically porous, but beautiful to look at, with some marvelously nightmarish set pieces in it, and enlivened by Johnny Depp’s engaging performance—and almost the same can be said about Planet of the Apes, except that it’s missing a Johnny Depp at its center. Mark Wahlberg, is a good, sometimes inspired natural actor in the right part: Say, a working class guy on a fishing trawler. This, I fear, wasn’t the right part. Maybe he doesn’t flourish in the special soil of genre conventions, or maybe he’s not convincing as an astronaut-scientist. He blurts and swallows his lines, and he seems to have one facial expression the whole picture.

You know the Planet of the Apes story—in many respects it’s the same here. But this time our astronaut is marooned on another planet entirely (though one with very familiar plant-life), where the apes are in charge and the humans enslaved or kept wild. He leads a slave-revolt, gets ensnared in ape politics, and relates in a vague sort of way to the humans he helps escape... The story seems to get all its traction from action—the plot always has that nagging ‘afterthought’ feeling, its political and character-driven elements seeming just sort of wedged fleetingly in. The original Planet of the Apes was co-written by Rod Serling, who was incapable of turning in a story that didn’t work. Serling was a real writer, and he never failed to make his characters believable. The human characters never seem three-dimensional till near the end of this Planet—and come to think of it, not even then. Again, near the end, there’s that afterthought sense about the sudden insertion of a relationship between Wahlberg’s character and the stock Heroic Adolescent Boy (probably inserted for demographic/marketing appeal).

Sadly, our brave astronaut seems to’ve lost most of his sex drive (exposure to space radiation?) as there’s this gorgeous half naked blond human girl who’s clearly interested in him... yet Wahlberg barely looks at her. Certainly there’s no relationship—which is understandable since she’s not developed as a character, and it’d be hard to be seriously interested in anyone that shallow. Kris Kristofferson is striking as a human tribal leader—but wasted. He sacrifices himself early on and has damned few lines.

There’s some kind of racial message here, which is both genuflected to and made fun of—“can’t we all just get along” the dealer-in-humans says—but which never comes into focus. (Has anyone grumbled about how the gorillas, who seem less refined than the chimps, are all played by black actors?)

Humans, in this version, can speak back to their apish captors... Which leads me to something I have to get off my chest. I mean—is it just me? The one thing that bothered me about the Charlton Heston Planet was that his character never thought to ask why the apes speak English. It never makes him wonder if he might be on some version of Earth. He should at least puzzle about it. Most people don’t seem to give a damn about this. They’re willing to suspend that part of their disbelief, for some reason, as in the early Star Trek episodes, where totally new alien races coincidentally spoke English. But they could’ve explained his acceptance of their English with translation devices, parallel linguistic development, something.

We have the same odd little logical oversight in the current Planet of the Apes. Wahlberg’s character never says, “Uh, why do these guys speak English?” Yes, I know there is a reason they do—it’s part of the story. But, since he’s apparently an idiot savant, he never wonders about it before that reason is revealed. I know: it is just me, isn’t it. I’m the only one bothered by it. Fine.

When the movie works, it’s driven by the nicely staged spectacle, the startling makeup, the mordant satire on humans and apes-as-humans—I loved seeing the dope-smoking apes, apes checking their deodorants, and so forth—and by the powerful performances of Tim Roth, as the brutal ape general, and Helena Bonham Carter as the simian love interest: the “Apes for the Ethical Treatment of Humans” character. This woman is good. She projects all the shades of self-righteousness, compassion, cool mockery, coyness, longing—right through at least an eighth-inch of chimpanzee makeup. She—and the makeup designers—manage to make her talking-chimp character seem sensually appealing. I was ready for bestiality myself by the end of the picture, at least with her. Carter made the character come alive. And Roth was frighteningly convincing as the heavy.

One interesting story element involves the apes’ religion, and the twist in the story that plays out pretty well, near the end, having to do with a returning ape messiah. But speaking of twists—the attempt at a twist ending was, for me and those with me, more confusing than shocking. Finally we figured out what was going on in that end (keep in mind, when you get there, that the planet of the apes in this movie is not Earth and that Wahlberg is returning, at the end, to Earth—and time travel is involved, too). But we shouldn’t have had to work at it that hard. Again—maybe it’s just me.

Burton and his writers do a good job of exploring new ape-planet territory, playing off powerful simian strength and natural acrobatic ability, slipping in amusing nuances of their behavior. The Human Dealer character is wittily turned, as he makes weary comments about having to deal with caged humans. There are the expected cute references to the first movie, “keep your hands off me you damned dirty human” and the crashed spaceship that resembles, on purpose, the crown of the Statue of Liberty. The city-of-trees set is wonderfully designed, as are the costumes—sure to be some Oscar nominations in those categories.

I don’t think most action or SF fans will feel their money was wasted on the film, because there are some pulse pounding action scenes—especially the first one with the rampaging ape soldiers in the forest—and some delightfully satiric moments. If Planet of the Apes doesn’t work as a movie, or a story, it works pretty well as entertainment.

John Shirley is the author of numerous books, including the forthcoming Demons from Ballantine/Del Rey, the Bram Stoker award-winning Black Butterflies (Leisure books) and Darkness Divided from Stealth Books. He is also a writer for screen and television. The authorized website is

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