Devolution of the Species


The distinctive siren song of the original Planet of the Apes films has a powerful subterranean charge. Whatever its surface attractions and failures, the cycle’s images of simian-human reversal and evolutionary cataclysm still hammer a nerve somewhere deeply buried in our reptile brains, where matters of racial and species identity will always trouble the waters. (That ancient anxiety may be why the gorilla exhibit is every zoo-going child’s ultimate destination.) On top of that, the films remain a scorching and uncomfortable parable of American race relations. Neglecting to interrogate, as the originals did, our Scopesian bargain between reason and zoo-cratic superstition, Tim Burton’s new Planet of the Apes prefers a Rodney King gloss on the civil rights of primates. Actually whining, “Can’t we all just get along?” Paul Giamatti’s weaselly orangutan slave-trader is the movie’s heart and soul—unscrupulous, opportunistic, and utterly terrified to step in and throw a punch.

It’s a campy, juiced-up ker-splat, busy with clumsy pyrotechnics and never nearing the vicinity of satire. More of a plasticized-gothic aesthete than an epic-pulp master, Burton remains enthralled by the monster culture he consumed as a lonely ’70s kid, and while you can see his attraction to remaking the era’s matinee Nibelungenlied, it’s plain that he’s as stylistically ill at ease in Ape City as he is lost as an action mogul. Stripped down to its chase-and-wrestle burlap thong, the new Planet is clogged with one-word scenes and ineffective thrill-ride effects. Now the apes are acrobatic super-gibbons, charging into battle on all fours. The percentage of the budget spent on trampolines must have set a record; in virtually every sequence, ape stuntmen are catapulting through the air as if shot from cannons.

The ape society as it’s been half-reimagined here lives not in a cliff-carved metropolis but in the Ewoks’ treehouses. Likewise, the fascist class structure (autocratic orangutans, bourgeois chimps, might-is-right militaristic gorillas) is neutered by way of a miscegenational multiculturalism. Interspecies couples are apparently common, one of the gorillas is manifestly Asian (played by Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), and the lead villain—a lazy, Dolby-emphasized convenience the original never needed—is a bloodthirsty chimp (Tim Roth) so malevolent he even growls murderously at his dying father (Charlton Heston). Compressed like tofu, the movie has invulnerable hotshot Leo (Mark Wahlberg) pass through a time-warping electromagnetic storm, crash-land in the jungle, and get captured in no time flat; thereafter, the narrative follows Leo’s escaped posse (including slinky animal rights chimp Helena Bonham Carter and Giamatti’s comic relief) into the forbidden desert, tracked by the ape army.

Of course, Rick Baker’s new facial prosthetics are a quantum leap; they’re more enjoyable than the script-stuff that passes through them (and certainly more captivating than jungle princess Estella Warren’s monstrously blank beauty). A Barry Goldwater quote notwithstanding, the film waters down the stormy Darwinian exchange and wonders if a contemporary audience is so undemanding that lines repeated from the first film (“Take your stinky paws off me, you damn, dirty human!”) are all the discourse it needs.

Formally and culturally, here is the clear-as-day difference between movie 1968 and movie 2001: The new script is path-marked by old dialogue recycled as in-jokes. Instead of scenes in which relationships are forged and sussed out, we get 60-second thumbnails, expository commercials for the rest of the movie. (Kim Hunter’s Zira now seems to have three full-on dimensions.) Instead of a sense of place and mise-en-scène, we get cheap sets and nonstop close-ups in which the actors don’t dare move a muscle.

The ironies begin and end with Warren’s luminous Amazon growing jealous of Bonham Carter’s intimacy with the spaceman; otherwise, what you see is what you get. What seemed rather dime-store in the original film—the orangutan tribunal’s a see-no-evil tableau, explicitly evoking the 1925 Darrow-Bryan contest and its attendant editorial cartoons—now plays like Molière. Burton’s Planet of the Apes comes equipped with two endings—one of them a much anticipated “surprise”—but they both smell like week-old fish. In ’68, critics more or less dismissed the first Planet as juvenile, shrugging over the wild ideas it splooged like a firehose. That it had ideas to splooge was no stunner back then, even for kids’ sci-fi. Today, I’d sooner expect a chimpanzee to be elected president.

What can be said about Brett Ratner’s sublime, a-day-without-it-is-like-a-day-without-sunshine Rush Hour 2? That Americans have the discretionary income to piss away at $10 a pop on this slack, unfunny bit of new-century vaudeville is good news for the economy, if not for moviegoers with a fifth-grade education. This movie doesn’t just kill time but tortures it. (Rusty torture tool No. 1: Lalo Schifrin’s score, the same one he’s been recycling since The Cincinnati Kid.) As we follow Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker’s gibberish-spouting, counterfeit-ring-hunting cop team from Hong Kong to L.A. to, what a shock, Vegas, we wait for spry comedy and snappy action like a fisherman waiting for nibbles on a polluted lake. The only relief from Ratner’s insulting presentation and the numb gesturing toward Hope-Crosbydom is a fresh, short minute of Jeremy Piven as a flouncy Versace clerk.

Click here to read Jessica Winter’s Planet of the Apes overview.