- Gorilla's in the midst: Thade (Tim Roth) lays into Leo.
This incarnation is but a campy joke trapped in the world's longest chase sequence; it wants only to make you grin, all the way to the Toys R Us counter. It offers blanks and asks you to fill them in with your own knowledge of the series, which included a handful of half-brilliant, half-schlock sequels, a Saturday-morning cartoon, and comic books. Neither a remake nor a sequel, it nonetheless refers to the original so often, you'd think Fox was using Burton's film to sell the studio's revamped DVD collection. Lines once uttered by humans have now been placed in the mouths of apes. Nova (the mute human originally played by Linda Harrison, who also makes a cameo) is now the name of a chimp, and not only that, it's derivative of a dozen other films. Texas Monthly founding Editor William Broyles Jr., Lawrence Konnor, and Mark Rosenthal are credited with the screenplay, but so many others could and should share the credit. There's not an original bone in this hairy body.
The plot, more or less, remains the same, even if the names and faces do not: Mark Wahlberg plays Leo Davidson, a scientist-warrior who has been training genetically spliced monkeys how to pilot research vessels (hmm . . .). When his monkey goes missing in an electronic storm that somehow manages to intercept transmissions from the future (oh . . .), Leo goes after him and winds up some 500 years in the future and on a planet where humans exist solely to elude capture, lest they become the apes' pets and slaves. But Leo, unlike Heston's original Colonel Taylor, need not convince the apes he is intelligent; humans speak on this planet, even if they're given little to say. Leo wants only to escape and reach "Calima" -- the Forbidden Zone, which is said to be the birthplace of the ape race. There, Leo believes, he will find his shipmates and vessel, and return to earth. Yeah, and monkeys can talk.
Still, this Planet of the Apes is perfectly acceptable, deliriously charming -- a goofy B-movie dolled up like a square-jawed A-list blockbuster. Unlike the 1968 version, it never drags, never bogs down in proselytizing, never moves in slow motion. There is no courtroom sequence to get in the way, no sly reference to the Scopes trial or the Vietnam War or the Black Power movement. If the original and its myriad sequels were meant to be read as cultural commentary, as Eric Greene insists in his 1996 book Planet of the Apes as American Myth: Race, Politics, and Popular Culture, Burton's version is meant to be read as an advertisement for itself and its action figures.
When it does get around to addressing race, it does so in a jokey, postmodern way: "Why can't we all just get along?" asks orangutan Limbo, a smart-ass, cowardly slave-trader played by Paul Giamatti. Giamatti, best known as Pig Vomit in Howard Stern's Private Parts, exists to offer comic relief, but the film is in no need of a laugh track; the audience yucks it up all over Danny Elfman's melodramatic score, itself a parody of actioner bleatings. The movie wants to be deep, with its tangential discourses on human rights and cultural encroachment, but it plays too shallow to leave any lasting mark. The monkeys talk a good game -- especially Helena Bonham Carter's Ari, a liberal chimp on a planet of warrior apes and a potential love interest for Leo, which somehow isn't as creepy as it sounds -- but they exist solely to gnash their teeth, lope at the speed of light, and keep the humans down. It matters little that so many of the apes are played by African American actors, including Michael Clarke Duncan as Attar, Thade's right-paw ape; the movie's about a race to the finish line, not a race war. Then, one should never expect terribly much from the redo that seems to exist solely because it can be made to look better than the original. You can never be surprised -- or enlightened -- twice.
Speaking of which, Burton's version also comes with its own "shocker" finale -- its own Statue of Liberty -- but it has all the impact of a grain of sand falling to earth. It feels only like a tossed-off, tacked-on ending, and it nearly betrays all of the goodwill the first 115 minutes engender. It makes no sense within the continuity of the movie and smacks of a franchise finale; it's a conclusion in search of a sequel, and it escorts the audience out of the theater with a shrug instead of a shock. It's enough to drive anyone apeshit.