One of the worst remakes ever or a reimagining deserving of re-assessment?
Prosecution: Was there a more anticipated movie back in 2001 for science fiction fans than Planet of the Apes ? One of the 1960s’ greatest and most iconic films remade by one of cinema’s most idiosyncratic talents? Yet if they’d have dumped the “Directed by Tim Burton” credit, you’d be hard pressed to know that he’d had a hand in it, so visually drab and by-the-numbers it all is. For a film that spent so many long years in the fires of development hell, how was it that this reheat was so crushingly dull and uninventive? Fox was obviously hoping for a new franchise to be kickstarted by this film, but its failure and nonsensical ending put paid to that. It fails as a Tim Burton movie, it fails as a franchise starter and it fails plain and simple as a Planet of the Apes movie. We’d rather watch the TV series.
Defence: Would you? Would you really? And remember, it’s not a remake, but a “reimagining”. That word – that is so routinely scoffed at now – was coined by Burton ten years ago to mean a story not in thrall to its source. So it’s an original take on not only Pierre Boulle’s novel but also Rod Serling’s 1968 script. How could this new film expect to repeat the classic twist of the original film? It couldn’t, and in its place is a bold and imaginative final scene.
Prosecution: We’ll get to that. Let’s bring in the casting now. What was Burton thinking hiring hiphop bad boy Marky Mark as his lead? Where was the much more interesting Johnny Depp? It seems like Burton’s free hand was being compromised with this film by producer Richard Zanuck. Wahlberg’s casting seems more like a Zanuck decision than a Burton one.
Defence: There’s no point levering Johnny Depp into every film if the part doesn’t fit. Depp can be many things, but a hard-ass astronaut he’s not (just watch The Astronaut’s Wife ). And what would the dramatic benefits be from putting an oddball like Johnny Depp into this weird ape world? A regular Joe like Wahlberg contrasts much more satisfyingly with the world he lands himself in than someone like Depp, whose first reaction would probably be to start a tea-party with them.
Prosecution: But it’s not just Depp’s absence. Planet of the Apes just doesn’t look or feel like a Tim Burton movie.
Defence: Burton is often criticised for adopting the same sensibility for each film he does. But when he does break away from those obviously fairy tale-derived visuals, he’s lambasted for being the spokesman for another person’s vision. For once this isn’t Burton staying within his safety zone (see the Burton-by-numbers double-whammy of Charlie & The Chocolate Factory and Alice In Wonderland ). It’s got the best of the arthouse side of Burton and the best of the box office sensibilities of producer Richard Zanuck.
Prosecution: It does, however, look very cheap. While the make-up, we admit, is impressive, the movie has a peculiarly sound-stage look. The original felt expansive and airy, while this version seems glum and parochial. It looks like a TV movie remake. Sorry, “reimagining”.
Defence: For parochial read intimate. And we’re glad you brought up the make-up, however fleetingly. This movie could have so easily looked like Jumanji . Fox was considering a CGI ape race until Burton brought Rick Baker on board. And however great the make-up in from the original franchise, Baker’s work is far superior.
Prosecution: And what of the script? A collection of weak, cheap jokes knitted together by a story that would have shamed even the latter entries in the original franchise.
Defence: The original had jokes. This ape world isn’t going to be made suddenly more believable by squeezing all the humour out of it. And arguably it gives the apes a heap more personality than the original. Sure, Cornelius is zesty, but the other apes fight for strong characterisation in the old films. There’s General Thade, who is a genuinely more terrifying foe than any in the original run, then there’s Ari, whose fight for human rights make her an ape-like Shami Chakrabarti, not to mention Paul Giamatti’s Limbo, who nabs some of the film’s zingiest lines.
Prosecution: But doesn’t Burton put all his efforts into making the apes sing as a race, and thus ends up making the humans look boring? Not as much effort seems to have gone into making them three-dimensional.
Defence: What, unlike the original, you mean? Case closed on that one.
Prosecution: And what of the ending? The original had one of the great movie finales, an image that is seared into popular memory. Burton’s film wasn’t obliged to repeat it, but we did deserve a good twist ending that made sense ! To remind the jury, Wahlberg’s Leo Davidson manages to go back in time to Earth to find himself in apparently modern day Washington DC when he looks up at the Lincoln Memorial to find a statue of General Thade staring down at him. Even Tim Roth, who played Thade said, “I cannot explain that ending. I have seen it twice and I don't understand anything.”
Defence: It does make sense, m’lud.
Prosecution: Go on. Oh, we’re going to love this one.
Defence: Quite clearly, after Davidson went back General Thade went back too, but much earlier and changed the timeline so that apes were in control of Davidson’s 2029. It makes complete sense when you fill in the gaps yourself and is a belter of a cliffhanger should Fox have decided to go for a sequel.
Prosecution: But they didn’t. Which tells you everything you need to know about this misfire which won Worst Remake at that year’s Razzies, as well as Worst Supporting Actor and Worst Supporting Actress gongs for Charlton Heston and Estella Warren respectively. And Tim Burton said he’d “rather jump out of a window” than helm a sequel.
Defence: But it was a financial success. Maybe not a record breaker, but it took $359 million worldwide against a budget of £100 million. Even taking into account marketing costs, it clearly made a profit. Fox obviously decided for other reasons they weren’t interested in a franchise. Although now, ten years on, they are, with Rise of the Apes .
Prosecution: So you are maintaining that Burton’s Planet of the Apes is a success? You are clearly out of your tiny mind.
Defence: It is a film as in love with the dark, the alienated and subversive as any of Burton’s best movies, and boasts some fantastic performances under some jaw-droppingly impressive make-up. And it manages to do something new and exciting in a set-up that had already produced five films and two TV series. Our only regret is that it didn’t convince more people so as to ensure a new franchise back then.
Prosecution: They could have called it The Ape Escape .
Defence: I’m outta here.
Text by Steve O’Brien