A Look at Planet of the Apes 2001
The Statue of Liberty casts a long shadow. If this year's blockbuster remake of Planet of the Apes was the first film to bear that title, it's likely it would've received much better reviews than it actually has. That's simply because, as modern day summer blockbusters go, for the most part this is rather good.
Mark Wahlberg (Marky Mark for those of us of a certain age) plays Leo Davidson, a sort of zookeeper for the USAF (Johnny Morris obviously not being available for the role). His job is to train chimps to pilot space probes. By far the greatest suspension of disbelief this movie will require of you is the concept of the USAF either wanting or being permitted to make use of our simian cousins in this manner. Anyway, Marky Mark's favourite chimp gets shot off into a blue swirly thing in space and our hero disobeys orders to go and rescue him.
Things perk up considerably after the blue swirly thing deposits Marky Mark and his pod over a mysterious unknown planet. The pod crashes and in the jungle he comes face to face with a savage, hairy, beastlike figure... yes, it's Kris Kristofferson playing a semi-feral human. Marky Mark, Kris, and some other actors who haven't been singers get captured by - intelligent apes! Because this is, like, their Planet, right? - and dragged off to the Apes' city to be sold to a comic-relief slave trader orang-utan who sounds as if he's played by the late Jimmy Stewart. Marky Mark gets on the wrong side of nasty chimpanzee Thade (played by an unrecognisable Tim Roth) and makes friends with liberal human-loving chimpanzee Ari (an alarmingly recognisable Helena Bonham-Carter, who gives an extremely eccentric performance). Helena helps Marky Mark and his not-very-funky bunch of fellow humans escape and they all head off into the wilderness so our hero can rendezvous with his mother ship. Tim and his ape army pursue and the scene is set for a big battle and plot-twists by the dozen.
Like I say, there's a lot to enjoy here. The ape makeup is, for the most part, stunning, though not as much of an improvement over John Chambers' original work as you might think (Michael Clark Duncan on horseback cuts a particularly fine figure). The plot is also pretty good, but I don't really want to give away any of the really nice bits so you'll have to take my word on that. Marky Mark's performance is a bit subdued, but he'll doubtless improve in the sequel. There is much visual splendour and the sight of the ape army on the march is enough to warm the heart of any Apes fan.
So why is this movie ultimately disappointing? Well, because it's called itself Planet of the Apes. That's a title with a lot of baggage attached to it, it's the title of a 1968 movie that's a tough act to follow. Not much of POTA 1968 survives through into the new version. It keeps the basic concept and some of the iconography but that's about it. POTA 2001 seems to be inviting comparisons, though, by sampling the most memorable dialogue from its' forebear and reinterpreting it. This backfires badly as it reminds you of all that was great about the '68 version and all that's missing from this one. Oh, and Charlton Heston pops up in a brief uncredited cameo - the actor taking time out from his campaign to make home ownership of cobalt-cased nuclear missiles legal under the Second Amendment, no doubt.
Where POTA 2001 falls down in comparison to the first one is in its' moral complexity, and this arises from the changes inflicted upon it. The human characters are more human - they can speak (though not many of them do) and have a rough sort of society. The apes, on the other hand, are more bestial and, well, apelike, which inevitably makes them seem less intelligent. Whereas the first film was partly about animal rights (the apes treat the dumb humans no worse than we treat dumb apes), and presented complex moral issues without comment, here we just have clearly-in-the-wrong apes enslaving poor (but noble) humans. If anything the subtext is racial in nature - apes sneer at the possibility of humans having their own culture, one (coloured) character describes another who serves the apes as a 'house human'. It's not a subtext that appeared in the original series until the third sequel and there it was the downtrodden apes who rose up against the oppressive humans in a very morally ambiguous tale.
The other big problem with POTA 2001 is the ending. Anyone who knows about movies surely knows about the magnificently powerful twist ending to POTA 1968. All the original movies have startling or powerful conclusions and the new version is placed over a barrel by this. It can either neglect to do some kind of twist ending completely and be criticised by comparison as a result, or it can try to do a twist ending in a film where a) everyone's expecting it and b) knows what it'll be anyway. Apparently five endings were shot, and if the one they used is the best then I weep for Hollywood. It's hugely unoriginal, adds nothing to the storyline, is (slight pun coming up) monumentally silly and doesn't make sense in the context of the movie. Ironically, it's also almost the only bit of the movie that remotely resembles Pierre Boulle's original novel.
The original Planet of the Apes was an intelligent movie that held up a mirror to the concerns and moral issues of its' time. Its' ultimate message was that man is a violent, ultimately self-destructive savage beast. This time the mirror is cracked. The big messages are that slavery is wrong (well, thanks for the scoop, guys) and that you should never go chasing after a chimp no matter how fond you are of it. It's full of sound and fury but signifies very little indeed, and anything calling itself Planet of the Apes should be so much more than that.