Thursday, September 04, 2014

Revisiting PLANET OF THE APES (2001)

Because of the two recent well received additions to the POTA series, I decided to rewatch Tim Burton's much derided attempt at rebooting the PLANET OF THE APES franchise from 2001. This film is generally disliked by both hardcore fans and the movie going public but I enjoyed it pretty well when I caught it theatrically and have never really understood the level of hatred directed toward this it. I never thought it was anywhere near as good as the original but it wasn't the crapfest everyone screamed about, either. So it was time to revisit the movie in question and reassess it in light of the franchise's rebirth and new health.

First, I must say that the two strongest elements of the 2001 film are the amazing score by Danny Elfman and the brilliant makeup effects by the legendary Rick Baker. I really enjoy the apes effects in the new movies but the apes in this film are superior to my eyes. The reality of them is tangible in a way that even the best CGI will never accomplish- these are real actors in prosthetic pieces and costumes that look and bend correctly and add a level of realism to the images that makes for a better visual experience for me. At the very least, I'm not constantly looking for mistakes in the CGI rendering to see the sloppy spots that distract me. Real actors in real makeup will always trump CGI for me. Sorry.

But with those two elements noted I have to admit that I don't find POTA (2001) to be as enjoyable as I once did. I'll lay out my thoughts like this-

1. The script seems to have been tailored to be a Tim Burton film instead of an Apes film. By this I mean that there is an overuse of jokey dialog and silly remarks that constantly call attention to themselves. Dressing up standard human conceits (bitchy formal dinner parties, sexual humor, jokes about hormonal teenagers, concerns about fashion, etc) in Ape Talk is silly and insulting if all you are going to do is point and giggle. If you are not making a point, plot or otherwise, there is no reason for it. We don't need a dozen examples of this culture being a distorted mirror image of human culture- a couple will do fine. This is too often done just to illicit a laugh and this isn't supposed to be a comedy.

2. I remember thinking that the film had been seriously edited down because several transitions were too fast. By this I mean story information seems to have been cut out in an effort to keep the film under two hours. On this viewing I still think it may have been too brutally edited but I also suspect things were just not scripted that needed to be in the story. Where is the conversation between our human astronaut and his fellow captive humans in the wagon pen on the journey to Ape City? Where is ANY conversation with his fellow prisoners until he is placed in the kitchen of his new owners? This is illogical and stands out as a major script problem. No one would keep their mouths shut in these circumstances. Why are we not given some time with the other humans to get a sense of them and their world? These people are not dumb brutes like in the original film so they must have stories to tell and information to impart to our fish out of water protagonist. Why aren't they doing this? Tribes are later mentioned so why not ask him where he comes from and about his odd clothes?

3. This may seem minor but I found it really distracting that characters would just disappear. For instance, when Paul Giamatti's slave-trader character shows up to reclaim his property he has two big enforcer gorillas with him but after Leo uses his blaster they are just gone. Poof! They weren't killed and we don't see them run off- they are just edited out of the picture somehow. Why not give us an idea of what the Hell happened to them?

4. If you are going to have two characters make lovey eyes at each other there needs to be some payoff or you need to leave that aspect of the story out. If Helena Bonham Carter wants to get her freak on with the exotic human astronaut - fine. But do something about it or leave it out of your already complicated tale. If you are going to hint at interspecies sex either pull the trigger or leave the weapon on the shelf.

5. The film needed to step away from repeating classic lines from the first film. One was fine but by the time Charlton Heston is wheezing out his memorable final line from 1968 it is eye rolling time. I like Heston's cameo overall with its neat referencing of his personal gun worshipping history but that line is too much.

As you can tell from these remarks I don't think as highly as I once did of the film. It plays like a film that was pushed into production too soon and almost as if the script wasn't finished. I suspect that it was a patch job of several ideas done to get a movie made during a window in Burton's schedule. He has remarked that he had little control over the film from the beginning and I can believe it. This is one of the least 'Tim Burton' looking movies of his career and the Burton touches all seem plastered on like the jokey dialog and silly characterizations.

I can't say I dislike the film as I feel it has too many good elements to wave away, but it is a mess and unlike most viewers I love the bizarre out of nowhere ending of the film. It is very much a throwback to the source novel by Pierre Boulle and for that reason alone I would like it. But the questions it raises with its final image of General Thade as a revered founding father still puts a smile on my face today. What a wonderfully strange idea to end the film! Maybe I'm the only one this appeals to but I seriously love the possible mad futures this could have created if this film had not been so loathed.

This is my least favorite POTA film but I still like it a little. I guess I'm just a hopeless fanboy! 


Hunter said...

Fox selected a release date before they had a director and knowing they had a really lousy script. They didn't care about anything except making their release date.

I once had a conversation with Frank Darabont about this. He is a big Apes fan and was approached to direct. He told them their script was awful, and he volunteered to tell them why. They didn't care. They just kept offering it to directors until Tim Burton said yes. Who knows why Burton took it on, but my guess is he needed the money or thought he'd get some cachet from it. In any case, he was rushed from the get-go, which is the other reason, according to Frank, that so many people turned it down.

Simply dreadful. I actually had some optimism for it until the night before its release, when Fox ran a TV special about the film---and showed way too much. When Giamatti's character uttered, "Can't we all just get along?" I knew that this wasn't anything I wanted to see. I did finally watch it out of curiosity when it aired on Fox the following year, and I couldn't believe that it was even worse than I'd dreaded. I have never seen the film a second time, and I have no interest in doing so.

There is no 2001 Apes in my world!


Rod Barnett said...

I understand what you say and even sympathize- but I still enjoy it. Not a lot.... but a little. As I said, the music and makeup are excellent and (as i should have said) the cast works their asses off but it fails in the long term. I consider it an alternate variation on the classic series and the bump needed to get to what we have today.

Brian Lindsey said...

Like you, Rod, I love the fantastic ape makeup in this (all except for Helena Bonham Carter's Michael Jackson-like chimp, that is,) and also how most of the ape actors moved... I wish that kind of simian body language had been incorporated into the '68 original.

But the script is just dreadful.