Posted by David Kalat on July 12, 2014
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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