During the seven years that the "Planet of the Apes" remake languished in 'development hell', the project was akin to a revolving door, as various directors, screenwriters, and actors had their names attached and quickly detached. The idea of remaking the iconic science fiction film was first hatched in 1993, twenty-five years after "Planet of the Apes" first bowed in theaters, and director Oliver Stone ("Any Given Sunday") and scribe Terry Hayes ("The Road Warrior") were the first names to be attached. For the rest of the decade, the list of talent became a veritable who's who of Hollywood's elite, including James Cameron ("Titanic"), Phillip Noyce ("The Bone Collector"), Chris Columbus ("Bicentennial Man"), Frank Darabont ("The Green Mile"), Roland Emmerich ("Godzilla"), Michael Bay ("Pearl Harbor"), Arnold Schwarzenneger ("The 6th Day"), and even the Hughes Brothers ("Menace II Society"). It was not until early 2000 that "Planet of the Apes" finally got off the ground, with Tim Burton ("Batman") directing a script by William Broyles Jr. ("Apollo 13"), much to the relief of "Apes" fans everywhere. Now that the new "Planet of the Apes" film has finally landed in theaters, was it worth the long and interminable wait? Sadly... no.
A so-called 're-imagining' of the original "Planet of the Apes" film and its Pierre Boulle-penned source material, the new "Planet of the Apes" starts in familiar territory and ends up down a divergent (not to mention disappointing) path. The hero of the new film is US Air Force astronaut Leo Davidson (Mark Wahlberg of "The Perfect Storm"), who ends up crash-landing on an unknown planet while on a rescue mission. Within minutes, he is captured and learns first-hand that this strange planet is dominated by talking apes, while humans have been relegated to subservience, somewhere between the level of slaves and domesticated animals.
Determined to find his way off this 'upside-down world', Leo formulates an escape from his primate captors, enlisting the help of human resistance leader Karubi (Kris Kristofferson of "Blade") and his daughter Daena (Estella Warren of "Driven"). Leo also finds help from Ari (Helena Bonham Carter of "Fight Club"), the daughter of a prominent ape politician (David Warner of "Wing Commander") and an ardent 'human rights' advocate. Together, they journey to a forbidden zone far beyond the outskirts of Ape City, an area immortalized in mythology as the birthplace of the first intelligent apes many millennia ago. It is here where Leo might find some answers, as well as a way home. Unfortunately, the leader of the ape army, General Thade (Tim Roth of "Pulp Fiction"), and his loyal lieutenant Attar (Michael Clarke Duncan of "The Green Mile"), are on his tail, which eventually leads to what may be the decisive battle between apes and humans for ultimate control of the planet.
Burton, well-known for his 'goth' style (which helped revitalized the "Batman" film franchise), offers up a darker "Planet of the Apes" compared to the original film, which includes the breathtaking vista of Ape City and legions of armor-clad gorilla soldiers marching on the encampment of humans. The special effects employed in bringing talking apes to life have also advanced remarkably since 1968, thanks to make-up designer Rick Baker, who first brought movie apes alive in 1988's "Gorillas in the Mist".
Unfortunately, visual flourishes aside, the narrative is a hodge-podge of different ideas that never quite gel together. At times, the story seems to be trying to echo the social allegory of the original film by touching on issues of slavery, racism, and animal rights through the plight of the human characters. On the other hand, the film is also rife with some attempts at PG-13 humor, some of which work (nods to the original film, such as Attar telling Leo "Get your stinking hands off me, you damn dirty human!", or an unbilled cameo by Charlton Heston, who wishes to damn all the humans to hell), and others that don't quite work (some slice-o'-life scenes in Ape City as Leo tries to escape, or comic relief from Paul Giamatti's wheeling-and-dealing ape huckster). In addition, the story is fairly predictable, as anyone familiar with "Star Trek" and its love of 'spatial anomalies' will probably be able to peg many of the script's plot points within the first fifteen minutes. And like its original namesake, this 're-imagining' includes another twist ending, though instead of the sobering and apocalyptic scene that greeted Charlton Heston at the end of the 1968 film, audiences are left with an arbitrary and illogical (but sequel-friendly) one in 2001.
Another disappointment with "Planet of the Apes" is how uninteresting the characters are. Regardless of species, the characters found in "Planet of the Apes" are given little to do. As the villain, Roth is given a little bit of compelling motivation to stop Leo, but overall, he ends up coming across as a generic bad guy who spends too much time foaming at the mouth. A potentially daring love triangle between Leo, Ari, and Daena ends up fizzling, which was due to studio concerns about introducing 'bestiality' into a PG-13 film. As a result, Warren's love interest character is only left a few functional lines and asked to look longingly at Leo from time to time. However, the biggest disappointment is Wahlberg's bland protagonist, who wanders through the film bereft of character development-- it would have been far more interesting if Leo had been an arrogant and xenophobic narcissist prior to his crash-landing, only to be enlightened to the error in his ways by his mistreatment at the hands of the apes.
When the original "Planet of the Apes" film was released in 1968, it struck a chord with audiences in how it resonated the social and political turmoil of the late Sixties. Not surprisingly, the film became an all-time classic and established the foundation for what would become a lucrative franchise that included a total of five films, a television series, a Saturday morning cartoon, comic books, and reams of merchandise. Unfortunately, "Planet of the Apes" redux will probably not be remembered for much of anything, other than the special effects. Conceived as a moneymaking vehicle to pander to popcorn-loving audiences, executed with some poorly-developed ideas, and without anything meaningful to say, this "Planet of the Apes" is a forgettable trip down memory lane.
For more background on the history of "The Planet of the Apes" franchise, check out the feature article "Those Damned Dirty Apes!"