Subtlety has never been one of Tim Burton’s strong suits as a filmmaker. As a storyteller and overall director, Burton’s films rely on imagery and over enthusiastic narratives to do what he can’t as a craftsman. Oddly enough Burton is assigned to direct a remake of one of the most thematically subtle films of all time. “Planet of the Apes” is one of the most relevant commentaries on humanity and politics that has ever been brought to the big screen, and Burton never really grasps that aspect.
The clear example of that is that rather than depending on the actors behind the ape make-up to convey their emotions he holds audiences hands by basically assigning the apes eyebrows. This allows them to express emotions that Burton probably assumed audiences wouldn’t catch on to. That’s likely because the screenplay is so poorly crafted it’s tough to believe this was derived from a film that’s absolutely brilliant in its undertones of political upheaval and the vicious cycle of a civilization and government. Under Burton’s guidance, “Planet of the Apes” is transformed in to a fairly dunderheaded science fiction actioner with more focus on dazzle and style than telling a fairly interesting story.
Burton’s “re-imagining” trades Charlton Heston for Mark Wahlberg, morphing a generally interesting character in a harrowing situation in to a man who looks bored, even when experiencing apes who can speak fluent English. Wahlberg isn’t entirely convincing as astronaut Leo, and he doesn’t make much of a case for wonder and awe as the key player in the film’s events. It’s tough to garner sympathy for Wahlberg when he can’t even muster up enough emotion to mourn a monkey lost in space. Burton’s “Planet” is essentially a superficial re-telling of the original film with much of the politics and commentary on society exchanged for a lot of razzle dazzle, all of which feels like blatant Hollywood artifice.
The set pieces feel very much like set pieces, and Wahlberg never quite seems in much distress, where as Charlton Heston seemed to exemplify the madness of the fantastic situation he’d found himself in. In spite of his over the top emoting. Beauty Estella Warren does nothing much but look pretty as Burton squeezes in a few of his friends including Lisa Marie and wife Helena Bonham Carter. The only really standout performances are from Tim Roth and Michael Clarke Duncan who play the crooked dictatorial soldiers of the ape army who plan to overthrow the human rebellion and dominate the ape society for their own benefit.
Rick Baker’s prosthetics and make up are absolutely mind-blowing, and the artist manages to transform actors Duncan and Roth in to truly menacing and horrific villains who pose an awful threat to a slew of rather forgettable protagonists. There’s also Paul Giamatti as the spineless Orangutan Limbo who pulls in double duty as comic relief and a pure example of the wizardry Baker and Cinovation Studios are capable of. For the most part, “Planet” plays out very much like the original sans the irony and winks to cruelty we as animals are capable of.
In spite of the wonderful effects the film never achieves any of the magic of the first series. The finale unfolds in one of the most nonsensical series of events ever created on film, and to this day it’s painfully cryptic to where it’s clear even the writers had no idea what the symbolism meant, if anything. Even eleven years after its release, 2001’s treatment of “Planet of the Apes” is inane and absolutely irrelevant in the mythos set by Pierre Boulle. If there’s a redeeming trait it’s the masterful make up effects, and supporting performances by Tim Roth and Michael Clarke Duncan. But that’s a miniscule pro in a movie filled with cons.