2001: An Ape Odyssey
Accepted motion picture classics like Citizen Kane probably won’t ever be remade — unless somebody thinks they can make a quick buck off it. Heck, they hardly blinked at the idea of remaking Psycho. So mere sci-fi pop culture icons like Planet of the Apes are fair game. 30th anniversary screenings of the series held a few years ago were very successful, and the films have always done well on home video. An action-packed remake to star Arnold Schwarznegger was in the works for years. Fox lost Arnold, but gained Tim Burton and Mark Wahlberg – probably a pretty fair trade.
You probably couldn’t think of a more apt writing team for this project. William Broyles Jr. wrote Castaway and Apollo 13. Lawrence Konner & Mark Rosenthal wrote the remake of Mighty Joe Young, and – um – The Beverly Hillbillies. Throw all those scripts in a blender – along with Pierre Boulle’s original novel – and you’d probably get something like this movie.
Wahlberg stars as an Air Force space pilot Leo Davidson in the year 2029, stationed on a research ship orbiting Saturn. He gets tired of arguing with his superiors over their insistence on using chimps to fly dangerous missions, so when the latest ape spins off course while riding the edge of an electromagnetic storm, Leo decides to launch himself through the pod bay doors and into the infinite to see what happened. He promptly gets himself lost in the storm, too, popping through a time/space warp and crashing on a (conveniently) Earth-like planet. There, he gets captured in a medieval society in which humans are enslaved by intelligent apes, escapes with the help of a friendly chimp (Helena Bonham Carter), and tries to get back to his ship. Though he aims only to attempt a return to his own society, he inadvertently inspires a region-wide human rebellion, which climaxes with an all-out war in the ape holy land.
As fans would expect, Burton dominates the feature with his brilliant art direction. Even the opening titles, instead of bringing you into the story, lovingly depict details from the costume designs. Ideas from Boulle’s book that weren’t included in the original series are added and seem fresh here, and Burton proves himself a better action director than previously thought.
The portrayal of the Apes is simply amazing in every way, especially Tim Roth’s performance as the hateful villain General Thade, as well as hints that Carter’s chimp Ari may have kinkier reasons for helping humans. Paul Giamatti (Private Parts) scores again with another colorful character role. Charleton Heston is mostly wasted with mere camp appeal as Thade’s dying father – but trust Heston to be the only ape on the planet with a gun.
Ultimately, this remake is merely satisfactory when it could have been exciting, disappointing expectations on several points. Wahlberg fills his role physically, but is too low-key to be engaging, coming off as all the more distant compared to Heston’s barnstorming in the original. Estella Warren’s performance is pretty much limited to standing about looking beautiful – so much so that I forgot that she could talk. And some of the story’s surprises are less surprising than one would like.
When you set out to remake a classic, you have to resign yourself to being compared with the original every step of the way. For Planet of the Apes, this proves fatal. There’s much to be admired along the journey, but you end up being too distracted making note of what has changed to appreciate the film on its own.