Friday, August 12, 2011
Planet of the Apes (2001)
Like I said last week, I was sort of looking forward to this one. My only memory of it from the last time I saw it ten years ago was that the ending felt corny and forced. Like they wanted to do a twist ending to compare with the 1968 film, but didn’t know how to make one properly. My disappointment at the ending combined with the general loathing that fans throw at this movie to create a recollection that I hated it, so I was curious to see if that was still true now that I knew what kind of ending to expect. Turns out, I don’t hate it, but it’s very flawed. Not as flawed as Return to the Planet of the Apes, but certainly more so than the other live-action versions.
That doesn’t have a lot to do with the story, though the script isn’t anything that the screenwriters should be proud of. I did like a couple of things about it – they came up with an interesting way to get the hero into the future and they also get to the apes much more quickly than the ’68 version – but for the most part the plot is paint-by-numbers. An unheroic protagonist, Leo Davidson (Mark Wahlberg) finds himself in a dangerous world and has to hero-up in order to lead the oppressed to victory against their oppressors. The main bad guy, Thade (Tim Roth) is irredeemably rotten and the hero’s main ally, a chimp named Ari (Helena Bonham Carter) is insufferably good. There aren’t a lot of gray areas in the movie. The closest it gets is Paul Giamatti as an orangutan slave-trader named Limbo and Michael Clarke Duncan as Thade’s second-in-command, Attar, but even then…
Limbo gets thrown with the humans against his will and is forced to their side when Thade and his army think he’s betrayed them. So even though he reconsiders his position against the humans, there’s no real thought behind it other than survival, and later, “I guess you guys aren’t so bad after all.” The message of his story is that you’ll like us if you get to know us. That’s not very deep, but it’s still better than Attar’s motivation.
Attar is a religious zealot whose faith crumbles once he realizes the truth about the apes’ origins. I’m not saying that that’s not a realistic motivation for changing his mind. It could even be an interesting one if the script had the courage to explore it. Instead, it simply tells us that Attar’s changing sides because he feels lied to. Like most things in the movie, his transformation is too quick; too easy. Leo's another example of that. He spends most of the movie telling everyone that he’s no hero until the climax when of course he decides that he is.
But you know, the banality of the script’s not the biggest problem. It’s a movie about talking warrior-gorillas; I don’t need Shakespeare. Had the apes been as cool as the ones in the ‘70s movies, I could have overlooked the deficiencies in the story. I mean, I liked Battle for the Planet of the Apes for crying out loud. Unfortunately, Burton tried to improve on the apes and wound up with a mess.
I appreciate his trying. I really do. I understand where he was coming from. The ‘70s apes don’t look much like real apes. That’s not so much a problem in the first three movies, but it becomes one in the last two. I can see why it would be tempting to try to fix that. The thing is though, even in the movies where it’s a problem, I cut the ape designs a lot of slack, because they just look so cool.
Their closeness to human shape and posture makes them that much more disturbing. It drives home in a subtle way that the apes have replaced us. They’ve become us, and in many ways, they’ve become better than us. I don’t get that feeling looking at Burton’s apes. They still look like real apes, but worse than that, they act like real apes. There’s a thin surface of civilization over them, but in times of stress, they revert. The subliminal message that delivers is that humanity deserves to retake the planet from these creatures. And that takes away an important layer of the story.
One of the biggest themes of the original movies and the live-action TV show is that neither humans nor apes are inherently better than each other. As human viewers, we’re naturally inclined to side with our own species, so it’s very important that we understand that - in many ways - the apes have built a culture for themselves that has improved on ours. That keeps some tension in our allegiances. Of course I don’t want humans to be mistreated, but I also like the ape way of life better than what humans came up with by the twentieth century. By making his apes more beast-like, Burton robs his movie of that tension. Like all the rest, it’s too easy; too black-and-white. The humans, we're told, should win and the apes should fall.
There are exceptions to the animalistic apes, but I’m not sure what to make of them. It may be important that they’re female chimpanzees, especially Helena Bonham Carter’s Ari and Lisa Marie’s blasphemously-named Nova. (Sidebar: The various references to the ’68 film are irritating. The filmmakers take classic lines, characters, and actors that were originally human and hand them over to the apes. That only reminded me that I like the original better and made me resent the apes even more.)
Ari and Nova and a couple of other female chimps look less ape-like than the other simians in the movie. They even have distinctively human hairstyles. My initial suspicion was that Ari’s looks were meant to endear us to her since she’s a friend of humanity, but that doesn’t explain the others, who are all disposable characters. Even Nova’s only there to give Burton’s then-girlfriend a role in the film as he’d done in all of his other movies back to Ed Wood. She’s nothing more than the wife (concubine?) of one of the apes’ leaders. If you take her out of the movie, you change nothing.
The only common denominator between the two, main, female chimps is that they’re both played by attractive women. And if we’re being especially cynical, we can note that both of them are attractive women with whom Tim Burton has had long relationships: Lisa Marie prior to Planet of the Apes and Helena Bonham Carter ever since. Is the answer really as shallow as Burton’s wanting them to look hot? I don’t know, but I can’t figure out another explanation that makes sense.
And speaking of things not making sense: there’s the ending. Actually, that’s not true. That’s what I wrote on Facebook Tuesday night right after I watched it, but as Snell pointed out, it’s not that the ending can’t be understood. I’m assuming that everyone reading this has already seen the movie, but in case you haven’t, I’m about to spoil it: Leo makes it back to his own planet and time and finds that Earth is now controlled by apes as well. His first hint at this is that the Lincoln Memorial now carries Thade’s face (APEraham Lincoln, as Jamie Baker says, rescuing the concept) and an inscription about Thade’s decisive role in helping the apes take power.
It’s easy to imagine how this happened. There were two space capsules on the ape planet (which is not Earth in this version). Leo took the working one, but it’s conceivable that Thade escaped custody of the new ape/human regime, raised Leo’s sunken capsule from its watery grave, got it working again, and piloted it into space and through the temporal storm back to Earth’s past. It’s conceivable, but not at all set up by anything in the movie (other than Thade’s knowing where Leo’s capsule was). It’s out of nowhere and I feel cheated by it. It’s like getting to the end of The Sixth Sense and learning that Bruce Willis was actually an orc or something.
It wouldn’t have been hard to foreshadow it either. In less than a minute of screen time we could have seen Thade escape his prison and return to the sunken capsule. They still could have had their “shock” ending, but instead of throwing my hands up and wondering, “What the hell?” I would’ve thought, “Oooh! I want to see the next one!” Though I still would’ve hoped the sequel was better.