"Planet of the Apes" is the least surprising movie of the summer. It's not only that after the original 1968 film, four sequels plus two television series, everyone who cares knows the underlying material; it's also that the sensibility of its director is equally well-known and twice as predictable. They haven't called this "Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes," but they might as well have.
Grimmer than the Brothers Grimm put together, Burton is the creator of increasingly bleak and unhappy fairy tales like "Batman," "Batman Returns" and "Sleepy Hollow." His thrust is dark, morose and deeply interior, so much so that it's one of the paradoxes of today's Hollywood that his hermetic tendencies have made him the director of choice for multimillion-dollar mass entertainments.
The key reason for Burton's preeminence is very much on display in "Planet of the Apes," and that is his exceptional visual gift. The film's look is always the first thing on this director's mind, and he is quite good at making believable the strange worlds he and his frequent collaborator, production designer Rick Heinrichs, dream up, in this case that familiar planet where apes rule and humans are considered soulless slaves. Making even more of an impression this time is the physical presence of the apes themselves. With complex makeup created by six-time Oscar winner Rick Baker that took more than three hours to apply and with Colleen Atwood's vivid costumes, including nifty conical military headgear, these apes are, as might be expected, considerably more plausible than those of three decades past.
What Burton is less good at is investing his strange universes with a convincing interior life. The film's script, credited to William Broyles Jr. and Lawrence Konner & Mark Rosenthal, is over-plotted and under-dramatized, and its sporadic attempts at comic relief end up being neither comic nor a relief. Outside of a hyper-energetic, irresistibly evil portrayal by Tim Roth as General Thade, the baddest ape in town, the sad truth about "Planet of the Apes" is that, disappointingly, it's just not very much fun to watch.
The original 1968 film and its topsy-turvy social order, coming out as it did at a particularly volatile time in American history, was not intended solely as fun either, and the author of the underlying novel, Frenchman Pierre Boulle (who also wrote "The Bridge Over the River Kwai") apparently wanted his book considered "a social fantasy."
That sense of through-the-looking-glass reverse racism remains at the heart of the new project. "Take your stinking hands off me, you damn dirty human," is the first sentence downed American Leo Davidson (Mark Wahlberg) hears from a dominant ape on his new planet. As the film progresses, apes wonder if humans have souls or are capable of real culture, and are cautioned to always to use gloves when handling this violent, sub-simian species.
Although racial problems obviously persist today, those kinds of lines play as more quaint than provocative in the new film. Out-and-out silly are the attempts to give apes more clearly human characteristics by having them wear frilly nightgowns, use deodorants and complain about bad hair days. Worse still is the idea of giving orangutan slave trader Limbo (Paul Giamatti) the kind of "you are giving me such a headache" dialogue usually associated with Jackie Mason.
What plays best, frankly, are apes on the attack. Riding horses or hanging from branches, leaping high off walls or loping along on all fours, these armored, uniformed apes in action convey the sense of another world better than anything else.
As fearless as their apes, Burton and his screenwriters have not hesitated to depart in ways large and small from the first film. This new planet is not Earth, humans on it can talk and the inevitable twist at the film's conclusion goes all the way back to the one featured in Boulle's novel.
Also new is what gets Leo Davidson onto the planet in the first place. He and his fellow astronauts are on a huge space station doing, of all things, research on ape intelligence, seeing if they can get chimpanzees to pilot small spacecraft in dangerous situations.
A series of things going wrong lands Davidson in ape territory, where he is captured along with renegade humans Karubi (Kris Kristofferson) and his fetching blond daughter Daena (Estella Warren). Even worse is no doubt in store for him, but he attracts the attention of the politically well-connected ape Ari (Helena Bonham Carter), a human rights activist who believes "it's disgusting the way we treat humans. It demeans us as much as it does them."
Taking the opposite point of view is the human-hating General Thade, likely the most terrifying chimpanzee in movie history, who can be taken at his word when he says, "Extremism in defense of apes is no vice." Few actors can be as forceful as Roth, a quality that is an advantage when playing a role inside an ape suit. The ferocious Roth, who shares a strong scene with unbilled "Planet" veteran Charlton Heston as his dying father, knew what he was doing when he reportedly turned down the role of Professor Snape in the new Harry Potter film in favor of this juicy, galvanic performance.
On the other side of the species gap, Wahlberg displays welcome presence and a natural gravity, but he doesn't get much help from "Driven" veteran Warren or the rest of the human race. With their simian characteristics amplified by time in "Ape School," the actors in the nonhuman roles are mostly too buried by makeup to make strong impressions, although rival big men Attar (Michael Clarke Duncan) and Krull (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) do get our attention.
Unfortunately, none of the good work counts as much as you'd think it would. Filled with ponderous musings about the dangers of technology and the way history rewards cruelty with power, "Planet of the Apes" shows that taking material too seriously can be as much of a handicap as not taking it seriously at all.
MPAA rating: PG-13, some sequences of action/violence. Times guidelines: The tone is often dark and threatening, but the action is not overly intense.
'Planet of the Apes'
Mark Wahlberg: Leo Davidson
Tim Roth: General Thade
Helena Bonham Carter: Ari
Michael Clarke Duncan: Attar
Paul Giamatti: Limbo
Estella Warren Daena
A Zanuck Co. production, released by 20th Century Fox. Director Tim Burton. Producer Richard D. Zanuck. Executive producer Ralph Winter. Screenplay William Broyles Jr. and Lawrence Konner & Mark Rosenthal. Cinematographer Philippe Rousselot. Editor Chris Lebenzon. Costumes Colleen Atwood. Music Danny Elfman. Production design Rick Heinrichs. Supervising art director John Dexter. Art directors Sean Haworth, Philip Toolin. Set decorator Rosemary Brandenburg. Running time: 1 hour, 59 minutes.