Escape Back to the Planet of the Apes: Tim Burton’s Missing Link

Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes 2001

The second part of Jokerside’s trip back to The Planet of the Apes shifts even further sideways. After five films, a television series and an animated television series the Plane of the Apes saga looked to have burnt itself out on the big and small screens by the mid-1970s. But you can’t keep good dystopia down. And plans for a reboot that began in the late 1980s came to fruition at the start of the 21st century…

Less a reboot, more a reimagining, in hindsight Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes served to add even more texture to a science fiction sprawl across multiple parallel realities. It may stand alone, but 14 years on, does it stand tall? *If you care about spoiling this or any other Apes film you may not want to read on just yet.*

EVERY SO OFTEN A CREATIVE PROPERTY FINDS ITSELF STAMPED WITH A FAMILIAR LABEL, ONE THAT MAKE’S SELECT FILM FANS SLAP THEIR HEADS WITH BLUNT SCISSORS: A TIM BURTON DREAM PROJECT. It’s a surprisingly broad label, or ‘dream label’, that says more about the creator than the subject. Perhaps it’s something quirky, eccentric, gothic, long forgotten or that urgently needs a ‘Hollywood update’. It may well have a Grimmish quality of child-like amazement and horror. Easily accommodating Johnny Depp helps, and of course, it can’t have been picked up by Terry Gilliam already. It’s a regular sentence in Hollywood notices, but one that broadly ignores the fact that Burton’s best work comes from properties that are either very well known (Sleepy Hollow, Batman) or fresh and twisted takes from multiple sources (Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands). Other times, it all goes a little wrong.  Whether it’s the work of Lewis Carroll, Roald Dahl or yes, Pierre Boulles… A decade on from his brilliant Batman two-parter Apes proved once again that big budget studio ambition isn’t always the best partner to Tim Burton dream projects.

The first part of this retrospective took a look at the original auteurs of everything Ape. There was Pierre’s Boulle’s erudite novel from 1963, making ingenious commentary and putting enough ideas on paper to last well over the eight films it’s so far spawned. Five years later came the iconic adaptation under the expert eye of director Franklin J. Schaffner, with the marvellously unpredictable Charlton Heston frying every synapse as the last man; thrown forward in time to get the final proof that his contempt for his own species was spot on. And there was no redemption to be found on screen, especially when the second film continued that storyline to a very finite conclusion: the detonation of the doomsday bomb and the destruction of the world. The franchise would spin on of course, and a look at the conclusion of that cycle, along with the recent highly successful reboot will come next time…

For now, though there’s the real anomaly. The film that took on Boulle’s original book and the first, unforgettable adaptation. The film that saw Fox chucking a primate’s kitchen sink at rejuvenating something they and almost everyone else seemed to have forgotten. And for many, including some involved in its creation, it’s proved a difficult middle child. And one who deserves little attention…

Planet of the Apes (2001)

“You’ll be sorry you were ever born human” – Tagline

Well, Planet of the Apes films never went in for optimistic taglines… But for all its faults, and there are many, 2001’s Planet of the Apes certainly tries to make an impression. And where better than the start as Danny Elfman’s score thunders in homage to Jerry Goldsmith’s ground-breaking original. The camera powers past two glimpses of a gorilla and relics and friezes that recall the history of apes. But, for all its bombast, this also lays down this film’s approach: faster and safer than the 1968 adaptation.

Cut to: An ape in a space suit.

We’re not on a suicide mission here, there are no humans heading knowingly into the unknown, and no telling soliloquys form the pioneers of the future. Now, we’re on a station three decades in the future, packed with apes and humans thrown together in scientific discovery thanks to the deforestation that wiped out wild apes. And this ape in a suit is Pericles, a “gene spiced state-of-the-art monkey” who’s about to be a father.

Frustrating

Convoluted time travel is not this big budget Planet of the Apes’ major problem

We immediately realise that we’re not in the same tense, wondrous universe as that 60s classic, even though the same highly serious intention remains. If only there was a mention of time dilation or Hasslein’s theory… The main protagonist here, Mark Wahlberg’s Leo Davidson, has nowhere near the grasp of relativity Charlton Heston’s Taylor had. But in the scheme of the whole film, for all the criticism that hangs from its neck like an anchor, the convoluted time travel is not this big budget Planet of the Apes’ major problem.

Wahlberg is functional but sadly, like the mighty Burton, needs the right material to reach his peak. If the script lent him some of the mania Heston was gifted, some of Wahlberg’s other films suggest that he could have really cut loose. Davidson’s sketched out as frustrated and wasted more than conflicted and cynical. He’s not even presented as much of an animal person considering his job. When he inevitably sets off into an electromagnetic storm in pursuit of his lost space ape Pericles it’s hardly presented as an act of altruism. Later Davidson tells his ape allies that, “we do worse to our own kind…We’re pretty smart and the smarter we get the more dangerous our world becomes,” but by that point it can only be taken as a token reference to the anger and angst of the nuclear-petrified 1960s.

Crashing

“How the hell did these monkeys get like this?”

Later, there’s no great montage when the planet comes up to meet Davidson’s crashing space craft. Just the lush Dagobah-like swamp land, before the forbidden desert pops up for the last act. He may get a water landing like Taylor, but Davidson soon finds himself in the jungle pursuit of fully four footed hunting mixed apes and then in their foliage engulfed city. The lengthy stroll that Taylor and co took in 1968 would be remarkably out of place in a 21st century blockbuster, but the speed of Davidson’s journey considerably chops down the shock value and the build-up. Because why hang around when there are monkeys to observe..?

The Storm

Sets the alarms of narrative danger flashing

The storm McGuffin that propels Davidson into that new world at breakneck pace is a storm that could take a fine semi-retirement as a Star Trek anomaly of the week. It’s arbitrary, and far less effective than the ill-defined time dilation mystery of 1968. And once Pericles and Davidson have disappeared into it, one moment on the space station Oberon that they left behind clearly sets the alarms of narrative danger flashing. An SOS from the station’s future captain: unclear, muddled, obscure, almost unrecognisable and remarkably fleeting, sitting where it does at an awkward point of the first act.

Time

It’s actually not that ill thought out…

Deep breath. So, that little time travel bit then.

So infamous that a small explanation card was included with early home media releases, or hasn’t that happened in this timeline yet? Almost 15 years after the film’s release it still comes up in interviews with cast and crew. But it’s not actually ill thought out, more unnecessarily complicated and prominent. Like someone half watched the original films and all they realised was that it was a neat way to jump logic and surprise the audience… So how does it work? Effectively, any item falling into the storm emerges the other side (of time space) in reverse order. So even if you enter thousands of years later, you‘ll emerge far in advance of the previous entrant. Whether unlimited items endlessly pouring in would stretch this reappearance like an event horizon isn’t made clear, but it’s certainly shown as arbitrary phenomena in the storm. And time is clearly running faster on the other side. When Davidson follows Pericles in, mere seconds translates into days or at most weeks on the planet. Oberon must have hung around a fair while before (laughably) attempting to follow them (or let’s be kind – they were dragged into the storm), hence they emerged millennia in the past.

Of course, this also works in reverse, which leads to the infamous ending. Davidson and Pericles’ return journey throws them back further in time than their own (roughly our contemporary Earth, while Davidson’s native time, still not reaching Ulysses’ time, is 30 years in the film’s future). And for all the derision, this film’s ending is far more faithful to Boulles’ than the ’68 film. But while that novel chose a slight mundanity for the chill of its reveal when Ulysse and family arrive on Earth, this film felt it had to confront the Lady Liberty finale of the ’68 classic.

A Lincoln to the past

It’s really done the film a disservice

That’s a mistake, even though it complies with the time logic. And like every paradox it must rely on some apparently missing information. This time it’s a minor jump to conclude that the villain chimpanzee Thade escaped somehow using the sacred technology of the Oberon, or Davidson’s more recent tech, followed his nemesis through the storm, tracked his trajectory and therefore somehow landed on Earth far before him. Whether the simian Lincoln memorial was doctored or, more likely, just built in his honour a century or so before Davidson’s arrival may have been confronted in a sequel. For all its awkwardness, as many points put it closer to the book than the 1968 film, the reputation that ending’s left has really done the film a disservice.

It’s unbelievable that, as the story goes, no one involved really had a clue what this ending meant. But again, it’s really not the film’s major problem. In fact, the narrative gets a lot more interesting when Davidson finds a signal that suggests that an Oberon team is already on the planet to rescue him.

Nods

“Their power of invention, their power of technology… the power of a thousand spears”

One major problem is the film’s need to acknowledge its status as a reimagining. Just think about that – there is no way this approach can ever make sense. But it’s not alone in that struggle. Even 2013’s Star Trek: into Darkness couldn’t avoid falling into parody when it felt compelled to confront its difficult relationship to the classic Star Trek II. But here, in the context of a complete reimagining, it’s utterly unnecessary. The reboot that came a decade later did a far better job of breaking out on its own while only paying the neatest and most fleeting of nods to the previous films. Although the current series has been greatly helped by a narrative that spins from the later films and only parts of Boulle’s novel than the main body.

Apes’ big show-stopper was an all too rare cameo by Charlton Heston, remarkable considering how reluctant he was to star in the original series sequels. True to the contrary nature of the series, he’s cast in an ape role this time. Somehow, ever typecast original Nova Linda Harrison managed to cameo as a brunette mute human female. Heston’s role is central to the film’s rather hokey propulsion into its third act, using his last breath to explain the truth to his already hugely unstable son Thade, while providing a gun as proof. It doesn’t stand much comparison to the exchange between Zaius and Taylor of the 1968 film, and here the script rams it home as Davidson and his troop uncover the truth at the same time. Still, Heston is a touch of class. Hidden behind chimp prosthetics he gets the film’s best and second most familiar line: “Damn them all to Hell” indeed.

Logic

Odd leaps of logic say a lot about the reportedly troubled production.

As usual Jokerside feels compelled to point out that discussing plot holes in a work of fiction is a pointless exercise – before doing just that. But some odd leaps of logic in Apes say a lot about the reportedly troubled production. On the plus side, these apes don’t possess weaponry, more realistically preferring to use their considerable power and agility while leaving such nasty things as a shorthand for man’s brutality. When we first see the apes, it’s analogous to the famous Ape hunt but this time, vicious, hectic and involving mixed apes on foot in the forest. Also logically enough, these Apes have a legitimate reason to speak English (I can’t believe I just wrote that) as effective co-colonists of humans, and it would be mean to pick on a language that stagnated for a thousand years. Perhaps that’s down to the Boulle concept of ape imitation – though once again that’s never mentioned. Also better, humans haven’t lost their power of speech – a point that was really never explained in the original film cycle.

Unfortunately, mainly led by Burton’s decision that Chimpanzees are the scariest apes, the fascinating and strict societal roles of the apes have fallen by the wayside. Chimpanzee Thade is the military leader, as opposed to the albino gorilla first envisioned. Inter-ape mingling, socially and personally is common, although not particularly evident in the offspring, and ourang-utangs take roles ranging from senators to Paul Giametti’s human trader and comic relief Limbo. The logic of Boulles’ original set-up may have been forced, but its omission robs this society of a lot of alien richness.

The result are apes who are, despite Rick Baker’s excellent make-up and the production design you’d expect from a Burton film, somehow reduced to being human substitutes. And that leaves them prone to the chronic illness of dramatic clichés. In the middle, Michael Clarke Duncan’s Gorilla deputy Attar is undoubtedly one of the best characters, all imposing religious zealot. When one action scene sees Davidson recklessly throwing a flaming torch into Attar’s tent shrine, you can’t help but feel the human’s asking for something very bad to happen to him. And on a strange note, how strange to show the ridiculing of a religion so bluntly in a science-fiction film. To reveal the truth is a staple, but Apes sets a strange tone while it’s doing it. But Attar’s main conflict comes from his own kind, having turned on his old mentor General Krul to favour Thade. That’s shamefully underdeveloped all the way up to its brutal and unexpected conclusion. It doesn’t help that Attar’s opening snarl of “Take your stinking hands off me you damn dirty human” is a bit awkward.

Society

“Next you’ll be telling us that these beasts have a soul”

And in a weak script, forced coincidence is king. There’s the look between Davidson and Thade, then between Davidson and Bonham-Carter’s Ari. As a chief proponent of the Human Rights Faction and Thade’s number one she-ape of desire, it’s all far too convenient even in a world where apes are strangely and vastly outnumbered by humans. Ari’s pleas that humans can be become equal with apes mark the film’s first diversion away from commentary on science and experimentation to civil rights. Unfortunately, while commentary may be a firm duty of science-fiction, weak jokes on welfare states and human rights around are dinner table are a step too far.

Aping

“Quick, a towel”

The structure and focus may be torn, but at least the actors including David Warner as Ari’s influential father, are having a ‘whale’ of a time. And that’s just as well. It soon becomes clear that Burton’s camera is fascinated by Ape culture first and foremost. The four legged hunting, Ari writing with feet, Thade’s random, leapy tantrums and ourang-utangs’ vertical flower showers. There’s lots of playing with that – and poking fun at our human society at the same time – especially during the night scenes. Sadly, outside things aren’t in such good shape. Sure, idea of humans being able to escape the apes is ridiculous – but the weak motivation for the native humans and even weaker conviction on Ari’s part are the real shame.

Humaning

“Who would invest such a horrible device?”

It all propels to the sacred ruins of Calima (a name we discover comes from the V’ger school of selective dusting), the forbidden area that holds the secret of the ape’s beginnings. Of course, by this point we’re forming an idea of how this happened while Davidson’s still blissfully unaware. That’s inevitable in a reimagining, and the script doesn’t quite look after its audience well enough.

The forbidden desert illustrates that most of the film is designed to get to one specific point: A climactic ape versus man showdown, far beyond what was seen in the latter two of the original cycle films. The real shame is that it’s preceded by the least rousing speech of all time before Davidson lucks out on some fuel… In the space station built to last “forever”.

Ah yes, the Oberon, an incredible piece of engineering. Or not, if that claim of material immortality is true. On the way to Oberon’s resting place we see humans strung up on crosses in the distance, just like in the original film. That brings a slight nostalgia. But it’s worse when we see the remains of the Oberon, now known as the Temple of Semos. Its spikes play the same tank traps trick as the Statue of Liberty did in the original. There’s even more nostalgia when Davidson sits on horseback,  silhouetted against the sky.

Guilt

“You just dropped in from the stars”

Inside the Oberon, a convenient log provides exposition and tries to make sense of the earlier token flash forward. That log exposition is really no worse than the trick Boulle employed in his original novel. In this mythology the crash of the Oberon led apes to aid the humans until Semos rose to take charge and presumably say “no”. No doubt that was partly prompted by genetic enhancement and quite plausibly Semos is the son of Pericles… Whose arrival is the film’s true stab at monumental science-fiction. It’s positively atavistic, sinking its molars deep into great yarns of science-fiction and roots as deep as those Boulle was pulling up five decades ago. And of course, it unbalances the film horrendously.

Guilt Squared

“They’re all dead because they went looking for me”

The real gut wrench is presented as the flipped role of mankind. Davidson as remarked, is not a grizzled cynic or an aspirational and lucky journalist previously found in the franchise. If anything he’s more like the confused, accepting but doomed Brent of Beneath the Planet of the Apes. He’s a very normal, flawed man whose selfish act condemned his whole crew, endangered thousands and presented two worlds for him to choose between. Against all odds, the end sees apes and humans reach a new understanding, just as they had at the end of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. All this time it’s spearheaded by a gorilla. It’s Davidson’s departure and discovery that places him in another role entirely. This is not a study in futility. And in a role that grows from the start of the mass human revolt he’s suddenly portrayed as the last hope for man’s survival. With Thade namechecked at the conclusion, the idea of a nemesis rather flaws Boulle’s open-ended conclusion. In all, for all its relative faithfulness, the 2001 Apes manages to miss the mark of destiny and futility by some margin.

A lucky escape

“Maybe you’ll come back”

Planet of the Apes isn’t a complete disaster. it just fails to confront the legend of its predecessor convincingly enough. For all its woolly plotting and tonal issues, it’s still a fast-paced distraction replete with great character design and production work. But any changes in this reimagining seem too token. Much of the commentary is toned down or replaced by less interesting fare that hardly represents a bold leap forward to the 21st century. Still, against critical consensus it proved a box office triumph, easily surpassing other films in the franchise with over $350 million. As fate would have it though, unlike the 1968 original it would never achieve a sequel that would, in all likelihood, have increased its stock. A rare example of the studio listening to popular consensus over box office takings, time has proved Fox’s decision to close this franchise down quickly and quietly to be a very wise one.

Next time: Sequelitus hits like a virus. The 1970s saga with the arrival of paradox… 

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