Hollywood loves a good franchise. The movie-going public does too. Horror, action, comedy, sci-fi, western, no genre is safe. And any film, no matter how seemingly stand-alone, conclusive, or inappropriate to sequel, could generate an expansive franchise. They are legion. We are surrounded. But a champion has risen from the rabble to defend us. Me. I have donned my sweats and taken up cinema’s gauntlet. Don’t try this at home. I am a professional.
The Franchise: Planet of the Apes — chronicling the epic and turbulent history of a civilization of evolutionary advanced apes – particularly the bloodline of two chimps, Zira and Cornelius – and their relationships with humankind. The franchise spawned from Pierre Boulle’s 1963 novel La Planète des singes, and spans five original-series films, a theatrical remake, two television series, and a new prequel-re-boot hitting theaters August 5.
Planet of the Apes
Beneath the Planet of the Apes
Escape From the Planet of the Apes
Conquest of the Planet of the Apes
Battle For the Planet of the Apes
Planet of the Apes (TV series)
Return to the Planet of the Apes
The Installment: Planet of the Apes, the 2001 remake.
The Story: In a departure from the set-up of the original Apes and the two subsequent television series, we begin here in the near future of 2029, on the space station Oberon. Our hero is Leo Davidson (Mark Wahlberg), a space pilot who is training a chimp (a regular chimp) named Pericles to become a pilot as well. When the Oberon encounters an electromagnetic storm, Pericles is sent out to investigate. When the chimp’s ship disappears in the storm, Leo breaks protocol and goes out after him, getting sucked into the storm as well. Leo crash lands on a planet, which obviously turns out to be a topsy-turvy world where apes rule and humans are slaves. Like the live-action Apes TV show, these humans are intelligent and can speak. Leo is captured and brought to the ape city where he is purchased by Ari (Helena Bonham Carter), a chimp who protests the poor treatment of humans. Ari also purchases a female slave named Daena (Estella Warren), and both Leo and Daena are sent to work as servants in the house of Ari’s influential father, Senator Sandar (David Warner). Leo and Daena escape with some other humans, aided by Ari, as Leo attempts to make contact with the Oberon. The humans are pursued by General Thade (Tim Roth) and his number two, Colonel Attar (Michael Clarke Duncan), who both long to eradicate all humans. Some ape versus human shenanigans ensue.
Rick Baker’s make-up is draw-dropping at times. Whatever issues people had with the movie at the time, it is a small travesty (as far as such trivial things as movie awards can be a travesty) that Baker wasn’t even nominated for a Best Make-Up Academy Award. Peter Owen and Richard Taylor won that year for The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, which was certainly deserved, but come on, A Beautiful Mind and Moulin Rouge! got nominations and Baker didn’t? For Best Make-Up? Fuck off. Baker did the impossible here, which was make the remake’s make-up as impressive a leap forward as John Chamber’s make-up was back in 1968. I really love that Baker took a realistic approach. The gorillas have tall vaulted heads, some with alpha male silver-back gray hairs. And the orangutans actually look like orangutans. Not that it negatively effected any of the original films, but even as a kid I wondered why Dr. Zauis and the other orangs didn’t actually look like orangs — their hair was kinda sherbet blond colored, not orange, and their faces were peachish instead of black, like a gorilla. The biggest make-up treat in Apes (2001) is the presence of an alpha male orang (who have those giant face flaps) played by the wonderful Glenn Shadix. Truly amazing make-up, and a delightful bit performance by the late Shadix.
Colleen Atwood’s costume design is also really interesting (though not so brilliant that I will gripe about its lack of an Oscar nom), taking a page from the classic General Ursus helmet and running with it in a familiar but new direction. Also, Danny Elfman’s score, while not amazing is very solid stock-Elfman. I dig the main theme.
As far as notoriously bad movies go, Apes (2001) isn’t nearly as bad as its reputation — it is a true testament to the strength and popularity of the original film(s) that such vitriol was hurled at it back in the summer of 2001. Ignoring its flaws for the moment, Apes (2001) is actually a textbook example of how you should approach a remake. The problem with most bad (or at least hated) remakes is that they either A) just did a complete karaoke aping (puns!) of the original, or B) they changed the movie so radically you don’t even understand why they wanted to remake it in the first place. Apes (2001) kept the elements that people liked about the original – a human crashes on an upside-down ape world; great make-up; inverted ape reality bits; a twist – while also forging its own path. It takes Pierre Boulle’s original concept that Leo has landed on an alien world, not Earth in the future, and actually makes its own interesting case. On paper at least I like the revelation that the ape world was caused by the Oberon falling into the space storm and crashing on the planet in the distant past. We already knew from the film’s opening that the pilot apes were being genetically altered, so it follows easily enough that they evolved quickly and rose up against the humans. And I like how all this plays into the apes religious origin story of Semos – the first ape, in “the time before time” – who turns out to simply have been an Oberon pilot chimp who ruined paradise. That is an entirely decent revelation. And one that is also nicely telegraphed early on when we catch a glimpse of what appears to be an extremely aged version of the Oberon‘s captain in a staticy SOS message the Oberon receives.
Paul Giamatti is fabulous as Limbo, an orangutan human-slave trader who is forced along on Leo’s adventure. Giamatti’s goofy-looking face really fits the make-up in a way none of the other actors do (except Michael Clarke Duncan and Shadix), and he looks grotesque and hilarious. He also has the best ape walk. He’s got a lot of stupid lines, but that’s not his fault. His performance is a highlight.
I enjoyed the cameos by Linda Harrison and Charlton Heston. Harrison once more plays a human, who we only briefly see when Leo is first captured. When Leo asks her a question, she simply shakes her head and doesn’t speak. Great cameo for her. And there is something really fun about Heston now donning ape make-up. And clearly loving it.
Along with the realistic take on the make-up, it is an interesting change of pace for the apes to be more ape-like in general. The chimps run on all fours, they climb into trees, and teen apes playing basketball use their feet while playing. Frankly there is a lot that this movie does right…
What Doesn’t Work:
…which just makes all the stuff it does wrong all the more unfortunate. Sigh.
There is no reason for people to hate this film as much as they do, but, that said, it is not a very good movie. The first half works well enough, but once we enter the on-the-run second half of the film it becomes incredibly boring before ultimately releasing a soft fart of a climax. What does the film in are two major issues:
1) We don’t care about the humans.
Leo is a cipher. There isn’t really any reason we should like him. He’s given a couple generic “hero moments” during the film’s opening on the Oberon, namely bravely going to rescue Pericles, but his actions actually seem incredibly stupid, not brave. Then he simply becomes a juggernaut of “I’m getting out of here” once on the ape world, which doesn’t exactly function as character development. We never learn anything about him or his past or his beliefs. The original Apes opened with a very revealing monologue from Taylor, followed by several scenes of getting to know Taylor more intimately before he’s captured by the apes. Apes (2001) needed something similar. I like Wahlberg and given the right character he can actually be great, but he flounders like a motherfucker when dropped into a nothing like Leo. He makes Beneath‘s James Franciscus look like, well, Charlton Heston. And no offense to Estella Warren, but she really gives Wahlberg a run for his money in the Walking Hole in the Screen race. My TV almost imploded when Leo, attempting to refuse leadership of the native humans, says, “Look, you gotta make your people understand, it’s over. There’s no help coming. ” And Daena replies all doe-eyed and full of awe, “You came.” Man, I never thought I’d miss Linda Harrison. We’re also saddled with a small host of other human characters that I just didn’t give a shit about, especially a generic and annoying teen character.
2) The film moves too quickly.
The entire movie transpires over what seems like (or at least feels like) a day and a half. There is only one sequence of Leo as a slave before he manages to escape and we enter the chase portion of the movie. Apes (2001) is one of those movies where you look back on it and realize that nothing actually happened. The remake didn’t need to do all or any of the things that happened to Taylor in the original, but we needed similar things. Leo being a slave for one night doesn’t count. He barely seems in jeopardy, because Wahlberg barely seems fazed by any of it — he never seems to believe he can’t easily beat this situation. Leo’s reaction to everything in every scene is basically a monotone, “WTF? Well, whatever, I don’t have time for this. Peace out.”
As amazing as Baker’s make-up is, it has one unfortunate flaw — 80% of the actors can’t seem to speak correctly with their fake ape teeth in. Some, like Giamatti, make this work for them. But most sound like they’re wearing plastic Halloween vampire teeth.
Tim Roth drove me nuts as General Thade. I respect his investment in the character, but he was too into it. His movements didn’t really match the way the other actors moved, which made it seem like he was physically over-acting, and he delivers every single one of his lines in a labored and unnatural Christian-Bale-as-Batman voice that sounds fucking stupid.
Despite the fact that I like the film’s big reveal about the Oberon (on paper at least), the final third of the movie is a sloppy illogical mess. Michael Clarke Duncan’s character, Col. Attar, has been slavishly devoted to General Thade the entire film, without a single scene indicating that he has any doubts about his friend and leader. Yet at the end, he takes Leo’s word on what really happened in the “time before time,” without even asking him any questions?! He has absolutely no reason to believe Leo. The moment plays out effectively like so — Leo: “Yo, all that stuff you believe isn’t true.” Attar: “Really? Well, I’m changing my allegiance then.” Just lazy writing right there. And of course, we cannot forget the infamous twist ending, where Leo flies a ship back through the space storm and crashes on Earth on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, only to discover that the memorial is dedicated to General Thade. The ending is actually much closer to Pierre Boulle’s original ending than the Rod Serling twist from the original Apes. The problem is that it doesn’t make any goddamn sense. Last we saw Thade he was trapped. Shouldn’t we have seen him escape? Where the fuck did he find a ship? I think it is safe to assume there weren’t any working ships on the Oberon left after it crashed, otherwise wouldn’t someone have flown off and gotten help if it is so easy to do (as it is for Leo)? And even if there was a ship left, how did Thade learn to fly it? Even lazier writing than the Attar alliance shift, just trying to toss on a twist ending for the sake of having a twist ending. It is a perfect example of not respecting the audience’s intelligence, which certainly backfired in this instance, as Apes (2001) now has one of the most famously hated endings in modern cinema. So reviled was this movie that despite grossing $362 million world wide (not to mention merchandise tie-ins), Fox opted not to do a sequel.
Best Inverted Reality Gag: An ape organ grinder who has a human midget on a leash, dancing and collecting tips.
Best Inverted Reality Line: Limbo saying, “Believe me, one thing you don’t want in your house is a human teenager.”
Lamest Homage to the Original Apes Line: Michael Clarke Duncan’s horrible delivery of, “Get your stinking hands off me, you damn dirty human!”
Best Homage to the Original Apes Line: Charlton Heston, once again referring to the humans, “Damn them… damn them all to hell!”
Awkward Inter-Species Moment: Everything about Ari, who very clearly wants to jump Leo’s human bones. It is actually kind of unpleasant to see her eye-fucking Leo in every scene.
Weirdest Behind-the-Scene Homage: Burton put his then-girlfriend Lisa Marie in the film as Glenn Shadix’s female companion, who – in what really seems like a nod to Richard Zanuck putting his mistress Linda Harrison in the original Apes – is named Nova.
Should There Have Been a Sequel: You know what? Yes. I’m curious what that would’ve been, especially because Burton apparently didn’t want to do it. I would have loved to see what someone else could’ve done with Baker’s make-up and the ape-ruled modern Earth setting. That could’ve been very cool.
Up Next: Rise of the Planet of the Apes.