It’s difficult to fault director Tim Burton’s approach to Planet of the Apes. What he achieves here is similar to his Dark Prince take on Batman: Instead of doing a standard remake, Burton reworks this pop-culture icon for our more cynical age. Hence the decision to cast Mark Wahlberg in the role once played by honest-to-God, old-school Hollywood movie star Charlton Heston, that of an astronaut who crash-lands on a planet eerily like his own, but where the apes are the masters and the humans the slaves.
As an actor, Wahlberg has an appealing blankness. He’s an empty vessel for the story, projecting a guileless innocence, which circumstances will inevitably corrupt (as in Boogie Nights, Three Kings and The Yards, his best performances). But he lacks a strong enough presence to bring a bare-bones action script to life through his personality alone (think Arnold, Sly, Bruce or Mel). Wahlberg’s Capt. Leo Davidson inspires confidence because of his bravery and defiance, but he’s no great leader. He lacks the conviction or the ability to truly put the welfare of others before his own (in the pretzel logic of this adaptation of Pierre Boulle’s novel, Davidson’s reckless self-interest leads to catastrophic twists in history).
Burton makes the apes much more interesting. Not only do these creatures (actors utterly believable in their simian guises, courtesy of special effects makeup guru Rick Baker) possess all the familiar human qualities, but they retain an essential apeness. Even the compassionate human rights activist, Ari (Helena Bonham Carter), when she’s threatened, jumps instantly from the calm demeanor of an anthropologist-social worker to the warning shriek of an animal who wants to turn the tables on a potential attacker. Most amazing of all is Tim Roth’s Thade, a direct descendant of the “first ape” who possesses a kind of ferocity that evolution seems to have tamed in his contemporaries. There’s an anger and a feeling of entitlement in Thade which begs to be explored, but is only touched upon in his encounters with his dying father (an uncredited Heston in a wonderful tip of the hat to the 1968 original).
Planet of the Apes is damn impressive in its apes-against-humans battle scenes and all the encounters between the masters and slaves, which pointedly echo our own shameful history. But no character in this extremely fast-paced fusion of action adventure and science fiction makes any impact as an individual. Sure, there are plenty of archetypes (there’s even an ape slave trader who bizarrely is used as the film’s comic relief), but no human or ape is more than the sum of their parts.
While it’s much more exciting and entertaining than A.I., Planet of the Apes shares its simplistic philosophy: That the fate of an entire society gone awry is in the hands of one male who (echoing the much-copied Wizard of Oz) just wants to go back home. That’s an awfully slender thread to hang a summer blockbuster on.
The mind-boggling twist ending of Planet of the Apes (a sure setup for a back-to-the-future sequel) deftly unravels everything that preceded it, making Tim Burton’s reinterpretation look less like innovation and more like déjà vu all over again.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.