2001: Looking Back At PLANET OF THE APES - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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2001: Looking Back At PLANET OF THE APES

Martin Rayburn apes out.
Whether one is a fan of Tim Burton or not, it's undeniable he has a gift for creating atmospheric, unique movies. In 2001 he split his audience with a remake of the much loved sci-fi adventure Planet of the Apes. Much of the disappointment at the time was leveled toward the final scene, which although ambiguous is closer to the ending of the original Pierre Boulle book than was the ending of the 1968 Charlton Heston movie version most people knew. From this reviewers perspective, that final scene may have been a misjudgement but I rather enjoy the preceding events. Time has also been kind to Burton's take, as it still holds up today in design and appearance. Although whilst he reinvented the aesthetic and tonal gestalt of the 1968 classic, Burton retained the original's thematic underpinnings, creating a world that is both visually fascinating and painstakingly complete.

When Air Force pilot Leo Davidson, (Mark Walberg), leaves his space station in search of a test chimp deployed to survey a magnetic storm, things go awry, leading to a crash-landing on a planet where humans are enslaved by a breed of apes that are uniquely advanced, cognizant and cultured. But their refinement is little more than a thin veneer hiding their aggressive animal drives, which can lead them to the brutal treatment of their captured humans. Leo, who isn't acclimated to the Apes' tyranny, revolts against them and becomes a heroic figure and leader to the enslaved humans who know little else than the servitude and submission they have faced since birth. Helena Bonham Carter plays Ari, an ape with compassion towards humans, while Tim Roth brilliantly portrays Thade, a snarling, aggressive and pretty damn scary ape general, who wishes to see his planet cured of humans, and his fellow apes cured of their human-derivative tendencies.
Under the fa├žade of a fast-paced sci-fi/action blockbuster lays an entirely different animal. On the most primitive level, Burton's Planet of the Apes is gargantuan, pounding its fists with energy and a capacity to amaze that makes this film monumentally entertaining. But like the skillfully crafted latex ape masks through which the actors' subtle, universal, seasoned human facial expressions are transmitted, Planet of the Apes breathes life of its own beneath the glaze of action. Burton paints a textured portrayal of man's struggle against subjugation, with settings and characters that are unearthly, yet dually dark, gritty and present. The director ditched the early-proposed ideas of digitally animated apes or live apes with computer-generated mouths, enlisting A-list actors instead to give each ape a uniquely human core.

Perhaps the real feat here is that Burton was able to make these apes so utterly creepy and animalistic, much more so than their original counterparts, yet still found a way to maintain their human characteristics. Roth and Bonham Carter learned an entire behavioral language for their roles, complete with loping, off-kilter strides and dexterous, long-armed gesticulations. It takes a while to get a grasp of the full complexity of their movements, but once the language is understood, you quickly see how the ape dispositions intensify the actors' capacity for human emotional expression.
Other apes include Limbo, a pandering human-slave dealer played by Paul Giamatti, and Attar, Thade's loyal silverback, played by Michael Clarke Duncan (who incidentally, is perhaps the only Ape actor that sounds as though he's using his normal voice). Charleton Heston makes a cameo, donning full ape regalia to play Thade's dying father, and Lisa Marie Pressley appears briefly as a snooty socialite chimp.

Among the humans is Estella Warren as Daena, a female slave who says close to nothing (which is perhaps a throwback to the mute humans in the original). With a character that grows envious of the affection formed between Walberg and Bonham Carter (a man and a chimp), Warren is left to primarily convey her dissatisfaction through looks and body language. The wardrobe chosen for her seems a little exploitative at times; her garb is close to non-existent and the camera perhaps a bit too intrusive, but Warren certainly helps heighten the degree to which this film is visually fascinating.
Unfortunately, Burton's Planet of the Apes isn't all bananas and cream pie. The script incorporates a few narrative devices that are just too convenient, such as the illogically timed event that causes the wrap-up to the climatic battle scene. Although the majority of dialogue in the film runs smoothly, certain characters (take for instance, the shifty-eyed comic relief, Limbo) are developed in a stagnant and predictable way. Walberg's pre-battle scene speech, despite its relative brevity, is still a little laughable. That divisive re-vamped surprise ending is creatively done, carrying a certain light-heartedness to it, and leaving things ''open-ended' for the planned sequel which was nixed after the box office reception. Shame as I'd like to have seen where it had gone. But then we, perhaps, wouldn't have had Rise of the Planet of the Apes a decade later.

Ultimately, Tim Burton's overall design is so meticulous and aesthetically comprehensive and his ape characters are so believable and culturally complete that you can't help but be lured into his stunning visual world, which seems (if not only momentarily) to take precedence over other concerns. Yes, if I had to choose I'd plum for the original, but taken on its own devices Burton's Planet of the Apes still stands on its own two feet twenty years on.

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