2001-07-25

Today I detour from comics to talk about the new Planet of the Apes movie. Professor Xtos and I attended an advanced screening last night in D.C. (His wife got us tickets–thanks Madame Xtos!)

Here’s what you want to know: No, it was not as good as the original. But the really sad thing is, it didn’t try to be.

I’ll back up and start with the positive. By the standards of Hollywood in the year 2001, it’s an O.K. action/adventure movie. This simply means that the special effects are good. The apes act more like real apes than in the original film. All of the jumping around, climbing, and hooting make for a frenzy of activity that’s frightening and fascinating. And most of the apes really look like apes (not Helena Bonham Carter, though–she looks like Helena Bonham Carter).

However, the plot and characters don’t really stand up to close scrutiny. I get the feeling that director Tim Burton knew this. In fact, the more Burton films I view, the more I see his trademark visual glamour as an act of desperation. “If I give them enough to look at, they’ll be too distracted to realize that the characters are behaving inconsistently, or nonsensically. The clumsy improbability of key scenes will be erased by color, motion, and the exquisitely detailed clutter of the sets.” In his disdain for internal logic and continuity, Burton is in lockstep with the rest of contemporary Hollywood.

But there’s something else wrong with this new movie, something that robs it of anything but the most visceral of pleasures: the filmmakers didn’t take their subject matter seriously. They went for the funny bone, where the original went for the groin.

I recently saw a documentary about the making of the 1968 film. It explains that a major concern of the filmmakers was the reaction viewers would have to the ape makeup. It was important that the audience not laugh, or the whole enterprise would degrade into farce. That film turned out campy in some ways–Charleton Heston’s acting goes way over the top–but the serious illusion of the ape makeup grounded the fantasy world. Building out from that foundation, the film was able to reference real-world issues like race, animal rights, and the Vietnam War.

The new movie utilizes better makeup (except for Carter). But instead of fighting to keep a serious tone, it forfeits it almost immediately in favor of a cheap laugh. One of the first apes to speak paraphrases a Heston line from the original movie: “Get your hands off me, you damn dirty human!” Get it? Later, Heston himself shows up as an ape and paraphrases his last, most melodramatic moment from the original. Speaking about humans, he cries, “Damn them! Damn them all to hell!” Then he dies.

These are meant as jokes, and the audience laughed. But with that laughter went their suspension of disbelief. Suddenly, we’re not looking at a world of apes; we’re looking at a world of people dressed as apes. We can’t look back at our own world through new eyes, because we’ve never left it.

“Can’t we all just get along?” As trite as this is, it’s the only subtext the new film hints at. Burton seems embarrassed by it, so he has the question come out of the mouth of an insincere, cynical orangutan slave trader– again playing for laughs. For this alone he surrenders what might have been the film’s high ground.

As promised, the ending is a twist. But it’s not one you take seriously. (I don’t like reviews that give too much away, so I won’t.) Suffice to say that the movie ends with a sight gag that’s difficult, if not impossible, to explain in the context of the story. In any case, the filmmakers make no effort to do so.

The audience laughed, of course. But it would have been nice if they left the theater thinking as well.

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