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No point monkeying with classic sci-fi films


I'M SITTING in the movie theater, watching Underwear Boy pretend he's some kind of latter-day Charlton Heston. I let out a moan and mutter to myself, "Is there no end to the suffering of science-fiction fans?"

The remake of the sci-fi classic Planet of the Apes continues to stink out theaters nationwide. OK, so it's not actually a remake. It's just director Tim Burton's vision of Pierre Boulle's novel of the same name. Burton probably figured he could make a better film. He figured wrong.

His major error was in the casting, putting Mark Wahlberg, Underwear Boy, in the lead role. Wahlberg, who cut his teeth as a thespian by taking on the challenging role of modeling drawers for Calvin Klein, had the unhappy task of re-creating a role performed by Heston 33 years ago. Heston, by the time he did Planet of the Apes, had 18 years of acting under his belt. And that was just in films. He was a stage actor before that.

Heston's movie debut was in the 1950 film noir Dark City. (He had appeared, at age 16, in a 1941 Northwestern University film project, an adaptation of Ibsen's Peer Gynt.) He played a South American plantation owner in the sci-fi-ish 1954 flick The Naked Jungle - in which Chuck outsmarted and outfought about a bajillion rampaging, ornery, carnivorous and very hungry ants.

Heston also played Moses in Cecil B. DeMille's remake of The Ten Commandments, British Gen. Charles "Chinese" Gordon in Khartoum and won an Oscar for 1959's Ben Hur. He was Mexican narcotics cop Mike Vargas in Orson Welles' Touch of Evil, which is still cutting edge in the 43 years since its 1958 debut. Heston was practically the perfect choice to play Taylor in the original Apes movie. Where is he now that he's really needed?

In the remake, or update, or whatever it is that Burton has sprung on the movie-going public, Heston is an ape this trip around, repeating the line he shouted about the human race at the end of the first film.

"Damn them!" he tells Gen. Thade, played by Tim Roth (whose performance may be the only good thing about the new Apes flick). "Damn them all to hell!"

There are other such "in" jokes about the first movie, which will no doubt be lost on today's younger film fans. Burton perhaps thought he was being clever. True Apes fans probably wanted to break out the tar and feathers.

Dale Arnold, a science-fiction fan, thought Burton was clever by including the Heston scene.

"The speech by Charlton Heston on the gun being the ultimate form of human creativity was amusing and perhaps even true in a twisted sort of way so I give [Burton] credit for that one," Arnold wrote in an e-mail. That may have been the high point of the film for Arnold.

"The original movie was much better," Arnold said. "Although this one had several interesting scenes and ideas, it lacked something in the way of internal consistency."

Put another way: The first Apes film simply told a better story. Burton's version has better special effects and, thanks to Roth, perhaps better acting. But in film, it all boils down to how you tell the story.

Andrew Bergstrom is the convention chairman of Balticon 36, the Baltimore Science Fiction Society's convention which will be held on Memorial Day weekend next year. As a devoted science-fiction fan, Bergstrom knew what was coming with a new Planet of the Apes.

"I was distressed when I first heard about the remake of this classic science-fiction film," Berg- strom wrote in an e-mail. The original "should rank well above 2001: A Space Odyssey and very near Forbidden Planet for its landmark special effects and tight screenplay." How does Bergstrom feel about the new one?

"There are more 'in jokes' from the 1968 film in [the new Apes] than much else. ... The pacing of this film seems abominable to me, as if Burton relinquished the final cut to the studio heads. The ending isn't horrible, merely senseless. ... While the original plot was tight and made sense, this one breaks that fragile 'suspension of disbelief" necessary in any good science-fiction film."

And the good science-fiction films, it seems, are on Hollywood's hit list for remakes or updates. Those unwise enough to plunk down hard-earned bucks to watch Burton's disaster may have seen the trailer for a remake of The Time Machine, a 1960 film version of H.G. Wells' classic sci-fi novel. In 1982, director John Carpenter remade the 1951 sci-fi thriller The Thing from Another World. Can The Day the Earth Stood Still and Forbidden Planet be far behind on the redo list?

Alas, they probably aren't. But we can be certain of one thing: more no-acting underwear models stand in line waiting to cash in on starring roles in the remakes. It seems Hollywood types have never heard the saying, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

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