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Dawn of the Rise of the Conquest of the Escape of the Planet of the Apes

In honor of this week’s debut of the latest outing in The Planet of the Apes franchise, I rewatched Tim Burton’s 2001 misbegotten reboot.  It was like picking at a scab that wouldn’t heal—I know I wasn’t doing myself any favors by watching it, but I couldn’t help it.  And along the way I ran across an essay on that Apes misfire I’d written at the time but never published.  I’ve dusted that piece off and thought I’d share it here.

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Imagine a space capsule, hurtling through the void.  It enters a planet’s atmosphere, and begins to shake itself to pieces under the strain.  The hull starts to glow fiercely.  Scraps of metal flake off and burn to dust.

At last the capsule crashes, plunging into a small lake.  Its sole survivor staggers from the wreckage as it sinks to the bottom—he barely makes it to shore before passing out from his injuries.

The astronaut awakes later, and takes stock of his situation.  He is in an alien environment, alone, lost, and marooned.  To survive, he sets off in search of shelter—and hopefully intelligent life, dare he even say it—civilization?

On and on he treks across the wilderness, until smack he walks face-first into the glass wall that bounds his cell in the zoo.  He is on exhibit, to the fascination and enjoyment of the civilized intelligent creatures who rule this, the planet of the apes.

I’m no screenwriter, but sheesh, something like this is what Tim Burton’s so-called “re-imagination” of The Planet of the Apes needed.  The name Tim Burton used to signal an off-key point of view and flair for visual storytelling, both of which are conspicuously absent here.

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I went into this film—opening weekend at Washington DC’s Uptown Theater, no less—with ambiguous expectations.  I’m an ardent fan of the Apes franchise in all its various forms, which sets up two somewhat competing expectations: (1) a longing for the series to continue (“More Planet of the Apes?  Oh goody!”); and (2) a desire that it live up to the high expectations already set (“More Planet of the Apes?  Oh no!”)

We live in an age of remakes.  It is hard to escape the conclusions that Hollywood has run out of ideas, that it is so risk-averse as to be determined to monetize the beating of dead horses.  Witness the trend (remember folks, I wrote this in 2001!) of big-budget summer blockbusters adapted from old TV shows: Wild Wild West, Mod Squad, The Avengers, Lost in Space, Charlie’s Angels, Mission Impossible.  It’s not as if this has been a proven way to make money—most of the titles I just listed were box office disappointments.  But the formula continues: generic Mad-Libs scripts full of petty sloganeering and catch phrases, CGI overkill, and precious little of whatever made the original property popular.  To make sure fans of the original don’t forget what movie they’re watching, there are in-jokes: Patrick MacNee’s invisible cameo in The Avengers, or the classic Robot design appearing briefly in Lost in Space.  Robert Conrad turned down the offer to make a cameo appearance in Wild Wild West because he felt insulted by the film (he wasn’t alone).

By and large, these remakes show contempt for their sources and apparently believe that all that is needed is a CGI resume reel with a recognizable title.

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So when I heard that The Planet of the Apes was next on deck for the remake industry, I was worried it would follow that well-worn path.  And then I heard Tim Burton was directing, and felt a glimmer of hope—dimmed again, when the trailers showed something that looked for all the world like another generic remake.

As if recognizing this fear from audiences and critics—and the high esteem with which many people still held the original Planet of the Apes—the studio took pains to emphasize that Tim Burton’s picture was not a remake but a “reimagining.”  I’m not quite sure what a “reimaging” is but I’m pretty sure this ain’t it.

There are flashes of new ideas (like the business of the apes being afraid of water) but structurally the new film just apes the original (yes, pun intended).  The same scenes, in the same order, just with different characters.

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It’s not that I think the Burton version is bad.  Although my opinion has soured over time, I enjoyed myself decently on the first viewing, and I’ll credit the creative team with showing more respect for the original source than is customary for these things.  The result has some of the “feel” of the original films, and once I read some of the storylines that were considered for this version I have to say they went with by far the least awful idea.

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Even the in-jokes (cameos for Charlton Heston and Linda Harrison, all your favorite lines re-quoted with a twist) work well, and feel integrated with the film.

Integrated.

That word, and its connotations, points to the real problem.  The people who remade or re-imagined Planet of the Apes are talented and smart.  Screenwriter William Broyles is no slouch, and an excellent choice to fill what in essence are Rod Serling’s shoes.  But the original series emerged from a period in US race relations and civil rights struggles that lent the films a power greater than their sci-fi conceits inherently owned.  They were a product of their times.  That’s not to say they are dated—in fact, quite the reverse.  When seen today, the old Apes films still retain some of that visceral charge of the world in which they were made.

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A modern Planet of the Apes necessarily comes from a different moment.  The producers have said the 2001 Planet of the Apes has no greater message, but that’s exactly it.  The Apes concept deprived of its social commentary is just a silly idea.  When one of the Apes laments, “Can’t we all just get along?” there were critics and viewers who resented the too-obvious Rodney King reference and objected it was too off-putting, too direct.

Well, the older flicks were full of that kind of stuff, it just meant more back then.

11 Responses Dawn of the Rise of the Conquest of the Escape of the Planet of the Apes
Posted By Gene : July 12, 2014 7:41 pm

I’m so glad you published this. It speaks to so many things wrong in contemporary film. The original Planet of The Apes is a boyhood favorite of mine and the remake (oh yeah, “re-imagined”) was pointless to me. Yes, as a movie it is ok but it lacks the soul of the original just as did Burton’s Dark Shadows. Hollywood certainly spends obscene amounts of money on disappointing product.

Posted By Doug : July 12, 2014 11:07 pm

David, a great post-your title was fun, reminding me of Frank Zappa’s album trilogy: “Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar, Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar Some More and Return of the Son of Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar”.
“POTA” was powerful, big name actors and studio production working in the red headed step child of film, Science Fiction. The success of “Fantastic Voyage” in 1966 probably got 20th Century Fox in the mood to take a chance on a monkey movie in 1968.
In 1967 zoologist Desmond Morris published his book, “The Naked Ape” which posited that evolution proves that we are descended from apes. The 1973 movie from that book probably wouldn’t have been made if not for “Planet of the Apes”-rather than smart apes and men co-existing it had naked humans, notably Victoria Principal who went on to star in “Dallas”.
I grew up on sci fi, and many other genres-then as now, the only movies that are greenlit are the ones that producers gamble will be profitable. I would love to see more of Heinlein’s works made into film, and Roger Zelazny’s Amber series would make a good follow up to “Game Of Thrones”.
With that said, I passed on the remake, and haven’t seen the original or the sequels of “POTA” in years.
Now I must get back to my afternoon movie: “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension!” I’m trying to clean my house with that on in the background, but I keep finding myself sitting and watching with a goofy grin.

Posted By george : July 13, 2014 12:23 am

As someone wrote, Tim Burton has become one of the most depressingly predictable directors now working. He seems drawn to projects he feels intellectually superior to, and camps it up (DARK SHADOWS was another example). The 2001 PLANET OF THE APES may be his worst film. I’ve never met anyone who liked it.

The last Burton film I liked at all was BIG FISH, in 2003 … even though it reminded me too much of FORREST GUMP with its whimsical tone, episodic story and Alabama setting. Both movies are basically about someone spinning a tall tale. But at least it was watchable from start to finish.

Posted By robbushblog : July 14, 2014 1:45 pm

I do not hate the 2001 Planet of the Apes, but like you, it just feels empty. I still praise the make-up and performance of Tim Roth in the movie, but it does not hold a candle to the original. With that being said, the new Apes movies are great and have much more going on than Burton’s “re-imagining”. I encourage any movie-lover to see Rise of the Planet of the Apes and then go see Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. I saw Dawn on Saturday and it was fantastic.

Posted By swac44 : July 14, 2014 3:18 pm

Starting from square one was definitely the right move for the new POTA series, and two movies in it hasn’t had many missteps (although I didn’t love the human cast in the new one, but they didn’t detract too much from how well all the ape stuff, as you say, integrated, into the live action settings).

I love the original series–OK, Battle of the… is a bit weak due to a lesser budget, but you’ve gotta love John Huston and Paul Williams in ape makeup, and mutant Severn Darden–but I think it would be harder to pull off the jump back through time that reboots the original films three titles in, so I look forward to where this new troop of POTA titles takes us.

Posted By Gregg Rickman : July 15, 2014 12:17 am

Dave, you didn’t say anything about the extremely weird conclusion of the Burton POTA — one last kick in the teeth on the way out of the multiplex.
My guess, unconfirmed by any inner knowledge of Burton’s plans, is that it was meant to set the stage for a more Burtonesque sequel… for which we still wait… ha ha.

Posted By robbushblog : July 15, 2014 1:28 pm

Are you referring to the statue of Aperaham Linkin?

Posted By Juana Maria : July 15, 2014 4:57 pm

My dad had always been a fan of these movies. I know for certain that just about every boy and man I know will be at the theatre to see the newest version. I won’t! I find the “Apes” movies creepy.. with the exception of Roddy McDowell and Kim Hunter and that little baby chimpanzee in one of the sequels. So cute! I wanted to hug that baby. I love babies of both animals and humans, so precious!

Posted By Murphy’s Law : July 18, 2014 1:42 am

I think Mars Attacks is actually worse.

Posted By Doug : July 18, 2014 11:06 am

Drop the gloves, Murph-”Mars Attacks” is my favorite Burton film!

Posted By David S. : August 11, 2014 6:50 am

This was an excellent article Mr Kalat.
Thank you for sharing your (previously shelved) thoughts on this!
I saw the Burton remake with a friend when it opened, I thought it
was alright at the time(..my friend still likes it a lot and speaks of
it fondly).
I wonder how it would have been to see this in Washington D.C.
with that new “surprise” ending in it?
According to the book about 20th Century Fox in the late 60′s called “The Studio” by John Gregory Dunne, the original P.O.T.A. was a ‘roadshow picture, that was of seemingly rather secondary importance,(..but if a film made money, no matter what the subject – it was of course important)!
All of Fox ‘s money and hopes were riding on “Doctor Dolittle” and “Hello Dolly”.
Both flopped, but P.O.T.A. was a surprise smash and spawned continuously less-expensive sequels with higher box-office nets,
(until’ the last one “Battle..” was the end of the series for a short time – until 1974 when the TV show took over).
The original has always been perennially popular ever since.

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