The Planet of the Apes film franchise consists of, to date, eight films released between 1968 and 2014. Each week, venerable Apes mega-fan Max Robinson and inquisitive newcomer Dylan Roth journey to the center of the Planet of the Apes experience, one movie at a time. This is Turn Around, Bright Eyes.
Planet of the Apes (2001)
Directed by Tim Burton
SYNOPSIS: In the far-flung future of 2029, gruff space pilot Leo Davidson chases his space chimp companion through a rift in space and time, leading to a faraway world populated by angry, edgy intelligent apes and their helpless human slaves. With the help of amorous ape scientist Ari and a bland band of primate partners, Leo searches for a way home and discovers the secret of the Planet of the Apes.
Max: Really mad at how much alliteration you put in that synopsis, D-dawg.
Dylan: I aim to entertain, Max. I figured somebody should.
Max: Anyway, there were only like two all the way good original Planet of the Apes films but even the not good ones are kind of charmingly bad? Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes boasts an all-star cast, a Danny Elfman score and top of the line makeup effects and you will remember almost none of it once you turn off the film. I fucking hate this movie.
Dylan: I’ll confess that I didn’t believe you when you said this was the worst Apes movie, and was pretty sure it’d still land above Beneath the Planet of the Apes in my final ranking, but Great Semos, what a pile of monkey shit. Even Beneath sort of had a point of view, like good sci-fi should have—Burton’s Apes has absolutely nothing to say about anything. I’m embarrassed to have liked this movie as a teenager.
Max: It’s so frustrating! This movie is kind of like if you had like the ingredients for a gourmet meal but then you like poured it all in a bowl and lit it on fire then just kinda tossed it at the dining room table. “Here’s your bullshit ape movie” – Tim Burton. We get the kernel of an interesting idea here and there — it’s literally on another planet this time! — but the movie doesn’t spend enough time on anything to make it actually compelling. More thought and care went into the ape military’s stylish snailshell helmets than the actual writing of the film.
Dylan: I think Burton and company had the right idea in distancing themselves from the source material—after all, you’re hardly going to beat a classic like PotA at its own game. Like you said, having the Planet of the Apes actually be another planet avoids retreading the same ground or leaning on a twist ending that the audience already knows, but having the native humans still be smart, making the female chimp lead incredibly hot for our leading human, and that ridiculous fucking ending—nearly every new idea is awful.
Max: But also like…it pretty much just replicates everything from the original film on a superficial level. Wahlberg’s Davidson is an astronaut because Taylor was an astronaut, HBC plays a human-sympathizing lady ape because there was one in the original movie, etc., etc., etc. The new twist ending is fairly different from the original’s but lazily just swaps out one piece of American statuary for another. Every creative decision in the movie feels like a placeholder, and the end result is bland scenes of Mark Wahlberg being like “I don’t want to be a leader” while a “curvaceous female slave” (what the fuck, Wikipedia) tells him he MUST be a leader.
Dylan: Your point is well taken—Daena’s very presence in the movie is only justified by the filmmakers wanting a Nova analog, but Daena is arguably a weaker character because, unlike Nova, she is a fully functioning Homo Sapien with the powers of speech and reason, and thus has no excuse for being a non-person in this story. Evidently Tim Burton did not think Marky Mark and his own Future Wife in Chimp Makeup were enough to meet the picture’s eye candy quota, so a (figuratively) flat Action Gal is haphazardly thrown in without any thought to who she is or what role she should have in the story. She’s basically just there to throw the audience off the trail of Leo and Ari’s uncomfortable romance plot.
Max: Even beyond the characters being total ciphers, I found almost every character like…depressing? Bonham Carter’s Ari is supposed to be one of the good guys and she does nothing but mutter and jump around and shit. Heston’s Taylor was a misanthrope, but Wahlberg’s equivalent lead human has all the gravitas of a guy waiting for math class to be over. The characters we’re supposed to like and empathize with are completely distant and unlikeable, and not in like an interesting way! Tim Roth is fun as Ape Michael Shannon as General Zod and there’s some kinda cool stuff with Michael Clarke Duncan’s character but all of that is secondary to scenes of a small chimp in a space orb and stake-less action scenes.
Dylan: One of the strengths of the previous (and subsequent) Apes films is that they’re all very economical about their characters—there are very few nothing roles in even the weakest installments of the franchise. But Burton’s PotA is just littered with people (humans and apes) who are just there and do nothing. Leo and Ari are accompanied through their quest by a half-dozen companions who never really matter, they’re just taking up space. This includes Limbo, a character who’s important for about five minutes in Act One and then just sort of hangs around in the hopes that the great Paul Giamatti can squeeze a few jokes out of this humorless lumbering boulder of a screenplay. Only Michael Clarke Duncan’s Attar is charismatic enough to feel like a living breathing being underneath all the (admittedly very good) ape makeup.
Max: Paul Giamatti-ape offers to…sell? aspirin to some children at the end of the movie in a joke that makes no sense and adds nothing. This movie’s giving me a headache. Every character in this movie is so awful.
Dylan: Planet of the Apes was never exactly a gay romp, but it’s astonishing how this version manages to wring every ounce of fun out of the story. There’s no fish-out-of-water stuff here, because there’s no difference between Leo and the captive humans. Burton’s ape society is perfectly aware that humans can think and talk and just choose to ignore it, making them just as irredeemable as the Confederate South, and making it just freaking impossible to have a good time watching this. Not to mention that it actually makes more story sense for the humans to be dumbed down here than it even did in the original film! The apes and humans on this planet are all the descendants of the survivors of one crashed spacecraft—after thousands of years, the humans should be inbred into oblivion! GGUHH this movie just frustrates the hell out of me.
Max: I don’t think there’s a scene in the movie where Wahlberg shows any kind of shock or surprise at what he’s seeing, which honestly tells you everything you need to know about how badly the people who made this movie missed the point.
Dylan: Alright, Max, BOW YOUR HEAD, it’s time to choose: Which Ape was your Favorite Ape?
Max: ATTARRRRRRRR. The late great Michael Clarke Duncan as a like…Gentle Ape Jackboot who is way into ape jesus and whose defining character moment is discovering that his psychotic ape boss Tim Roth Isn’t Such A Cool Guy After All. Runner up to Charlton Heston, whose cameo as Tim Roth’s dying ape dad who owns a secret gun is a cute if pointless hat tip.
Dylan: For the fourth consecutive installment of Turn Around, Bright Eyes, you and I are easily in agreement in choosing a Favorite Ape. Attar wins on account of his character experiences this rare and handy writing trick called an “Arc.” Thank the Fucking Lawgiver we now get to move on to two of the best science fiction films of this century and never look back at this, Tim Burton’s worst movie.
Max: Did you know they’re making a second Alice in Wonderland? Jesus. NEXT WEEK: DR. JAMES FRANCO.