If there is such thing as a "monkey's uncle," Judge Dennis Prince is convinced this is the one that the rest of the family doesn't like to talk about.
Our review of Planet Of The Apes (2001), published November 20th, 2001, is also available.
"Never send a monkey to do a man's job."
In 2001, a U.S. Air Force captain found himself in a most unprecedented situation, struggling to comprehend a nightmare world where man had become the subservient form of life. Later that same year, a U.S. DVD reviewer followed in the captain's path to determine what happened, and what might be learned from the ill-fated excursion. Now, that same reviewer is again traversing the unsteady trail to a world where apes rule, man clings to survival, and a viewer restlessly squirms through it all over again.
Facts of the Case
U.S. Air Force Captain Leo Davidson (Mark Wahlberg, The Departed) has grown weary of training chimpanzees to pilot deep space exploration probes. Despite the admonition of his superior officer, Davidson launches himself into the blackness when a chimp-piloted space pod vanishes without a trace. His pursuit is perilous as he roughly navigates through blankets of apparent warps in space, ultimately crash landing on a lush but mysterious planet. To his utter disbelief, he finds himself amid a pack of primitive humans who are fleeing an army of intelligent and aggressive apes. Captured by the simian soldiers, Davidson is regarded similar to the other stinking humans, valued only for purposes of servitude or target practice. But a sympathetic chimpanzee, Ari (Helena Bonham Carter, Corpse Bride), frees Davidson from the militant gorillas to take as a servant in her home, headed by her father, the Senator Sandar (David Warner, Time After Time). But the sadistic gorilla leader, General Thade (Tim Roth, Reservoir Dogs), is unusually eager to eradicate all human existence and is barely held in check by the ruling Senator, not to mention hopeful to capture Ari's affections. But Ari resists the impetuous Thade and helps Davidson journey to the Forbidden Zone, a strange place where the answers to mankind's decline and the apes' ascendancy can be found.
In a word, ape-sh*t.
No, that doesn't imply wild excitement and enthusiasm marked by gleeful jumping around and waving of arms. Instead, it means this one lays on the ground and simply stinks. For Semos' sake, don't step in it!
With the potent premise of reverse evolution on the table, how could a modern-day "re-imagining" of author Pierre Boulle's science-fiction milestone ever fail? Somehow, it does. Tim Burton's vision of Planet of the Apes was immediately and mercilessly assailed by critics, ape-purists, and casual filmgoers at the time of its 2001 theatrical release. In fairness, though, I approached the picture with all the objectivity I could muster when reviewing the original Standard Definition DVD, determined to view it apart from the celebrated 1968 original; and coming from Burton, it deserved to be judged on its own merits. This remake, I found, hadn't many merits. Sadly, it existed as another disappointing example of the Hollywood retread machine that would believe action and special effects could be mistaken for entertainment; they can't. As noted, the story was already on the table with the renewed opportunity to fully adapt Boulle's original novelization, expanding the screen experience without the budget and technology limitations that constrained Producer Arthur P. Jacobs some 33 years prior. The technology is certainly here with plenty of CG-assisted visions and the nearly perfected makeup design from the legendary Rick Baker; however, somebody forgot to bring along a meaningful script for this time-twisted excursion.
Immediately, the film suffers from its unapologetic cobbling of recognizable elements. It starts with the cribbing of Kubrick's sterile hardware seen in 2001: A Space Odyssey, yet undermines the impact when it supposes a boyish Mark Wahlberg could be taken seriously within such an environment. It then attempts to play a quick ironic twist of man training the monkeys via the trained chimp, Pericles, and suggests a sympathy Davidson has for the primates, a sentiment that would be turned against him very soon. Then it quickly thrusts us through the bend in time as we scramble to get a glimpse of the space pod's time clock whirring wildly ahead to somewhere around the year 2400. Then Davidson crash-lands in a tiny lake (a pale imitation of the original ANSA craft's failed landing) and is immediately surrounded by primitive humans and marauding apes. In its impatience, then, this version supposes the viewer has seen the original picture and, therefore, doesn't require much in the way of exposition or context; this would be necessary to properly comprehend the social analysis that is to come. But, given the manner in which the film has been marketed, its clear it was intended for younger audiences who likely haven't seen the original, much less understand its true meaning. That being the case, how can the film dare to take such weighty material through an uninspired jaunted across lazy shortcuts?
It dares because it's a product of our high-tech, highly accessible consumer society that dumbs down its message in deference to superficial sensation without intellectual purpose. A popcorn movie, then? Not really, because while there's nothing wrong with a film intended to exist as a mere thrill ride, the subject matter this one attempts to tackle requires diligence in its delivery lest it becomes an ill-attempted, illogical misfire. That unfortunately is the diagnosis of this disaster.
Having gone on public record in 2001 with my panning of this film, I was hopeful that a six-year lapse would provide me an opportunity to see the picture with new eyes and hopefully find a deeper, more satisfying subtext to the endeavor. Time stands still. Sadly, my outlook hasn't changed and I'm still disappointed in the film. To that end, I feel it appropriate to now compare it to the original and determine how this return voyage could go so terribly wrong. For those who are familiar with the original release, they understand it was never a movie about "talking apes." Instead, 1968's Planet of the Apes was a journey inside the tainted mind of an astronaut, George Taylor (Charlton Heston), who had all but become a complete misanthrope. He proclaimed his distrust and disappointment in mankind, even amid the culture's incredible scientific advances. In his thinking, as far as man had physically progressed, he had arguably digressed in his actual humanity. "I leave the 20th century with no regrets," Taylor proclaims to his onboard voice-capture system, and asks his distant-future listener if paradoxical man "still makes war against his brother [and] keeps his neighbor's children starving." To Taylor, man deserves whatever wrath comes his way, a fitting penance for humankind's rampant social injustice and unraveling compassion. The situation on the "planet," then, became the Hell on Earth that Taylor might outwardly scoff at yet would inwardly fear. The jarring final frames deliver the fitting climax, confronting "modern man" with his debased and "primitive" self, clearly showing this film was never about intelligent apes but, rather, all about the self-inflicted de-evolution of mankind. Through it all, Taylor was merely a pawn for the unfolding of the chilling tale.
But there's none of that here. Why?
It's hard to say, and it's not appropriate to completely saddle the talented Burton with this mistake. As he notes in his commentary, the studio came looking for him after having this half-baked idea sitting around for nearly a decade. He admits he mounted the task with enthusiasm—only after warming to the idea, one he recoiled from initially—and, therefore, much at work here does trace back to him. However, the screenplay is still most culpable as is the casting of Mark Wahlberg in the lead role. Woefully, Wahlberg simply pouts his way through this one, averting eye contact and rebuffing those around him in a manner more fitting to a snotty teenager than to any sort of heroic protagonist. If this is the new millennium's answer to Charlton Heston, mankind is most assuredly screwed. And in regards to Rick Baker's makeup designs, they are a true breakthrough, though they still hamper our ability to cleanly discern the made-up actors' dialog. Nonetheless, Baker showed his technical maturity here and nearly pulled off the trick—that is, until his work was paired with a profuse amount of wire effects meant to facilitate the apes' jumping, climbing, and attacking motions. Some of this stunt work succeeded, but much of it looks clumsy enough to alarm viewers about what's going on behind the scenes. Finally, with the goal to make the apes meaner and more threatening than John Chambers' creation decades ago, these simians simply grunt, growl, and scowl incessantly, resulting in every ape actor coming off as overly-melodramatic amateurs. In all, the film took a tremendous collection of talent and technology and simply wasted it.
Okay, there's no denying this particular banana has still not ripened and, therefore, has no appeal to me. What does intrigue me, though, is its appearance on Blu-Ray disc. Like other high-definition releases, sometimes the dazzle of the enhanced delivery can lessen the disappointment of the feature itself. Unfortunately, Planet of the Apes continues to disappoint. The image quality, rendered via an MPEG-2 encoded transfer, does not live up to the expectations of the format. While it does provide higher levels of detail and smoother color saturation, it suffers from serious contrast washout. Too frequently, the image goes absolutely flat and lifeless, as if to coax out details from the mostly-dark production, only to eliminate the "pop" potential of the usually dimensional high-def format. There are some sequences that look good, but not enough of them enough of the time to make this a worthwhile investment. As has been the case with some other Blu-Ray titles, although the image quality disappoints, the DTS HD Master Lossless Audio track works overtime to try and take up the slack. The audio here is excellent, with directional effects well placed and smoothly balanced. You'll react when a gorilla's grunt sneaks up behind you with sudden ferocity and the low-end channel will rumble agreeably for the duration, largely fueled by Danny Elfman's Goldsmith-esque score. The dialog is well centered for the majority of the time yet does make good use of redirection across and around the soundstage. Oddly enough, extras here are limited to only Tim Burton's previously released commentary track (through which he's mostly silent) and a high-definition transfer of the theatrical trailer (clumped with other high-def trailers for Blu-Ray releases). It's confounding why this one wouldn't have been mastered using a BD-50 disc to double the storage capacity and, therefore, deliver the remainder of the features that were offered in the previous special edition SD DVD. And don't look for any Blu-Ray exclusive extras; there aren't any.
I think someone's trying to make a monkey out of us, don't you agree?
In the end, the film firmly disappoints (still) and the Blu-Ray disc doesn't fully meet the high-definition expectations. Although thankful that the audio track performs admirably, it's not enough to save this release and, therefore, results in only a rental as the advisable course should you wish to re-visit this particular planet.
Despite this attempt at an appeal, this Judge's decision remains unchanged. Guilty as charged.
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• Commentary by Tim Burton
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