What seemed like a delectable pairing on paper — Tim Burton and “Planet of the Apes” — turns out to be a mismatch on the screen. Largely listless and witless, this extensive reworking of the 1968 sci-fi favorite simply isn’t very exciting or imaginative; most surprisingly, given the material, it’s also Burton’s most conventional and literal-minded film, the one most lacking in his trademark poetic weirdness and bracing flights of fancy. The brand name and enticing ingredients should produce opening biz that will warrant chest-beating from Fox, enough to launch it to robust if not sensational domestic B.O. and an even more muscular international career. On the other hand, a series of sequels, such as the original spawned, seems highly unlikely.
With the talent involved as well as the advances in makeup and special effects in recent years, an “Apes” redo seemed justifiable as these things go; certainly there was room for an edgier and more provocative table-turning of human-simian relations. But while the technology has permitted some advances — rather mild ones, as it turns out — the scripting hits nothing but obvious and tiresome topical notes, with “political” parallels that may generate snorts of recognition in viewers but are nothing more than cheap gags one might expect in a collegiate revue on the same subject.
And when Mark Wahlberg utters the immortal line, “Never send a monkey to do a man’s job,” as he sets out on his trip through time and space, one can’t help but think that a boy has been sent on a man’s job in trying to fill Charlton Heston’s loincloth. Indeed, the erstwhile Dirk Diggler doesn’t even risk the comparison, remaining in his tattered Air Force flight suit throughout. But to see Wahlberg move with such a blank sense of purpose through this alien universe is to be reminded anew of the qualities — physical and otherwise — that Heston brought to intense, driven heroic roles.
Space-set 15-minute opening isn’t bad, with Wahlberg’s Captain Leo Davidson, on a humongous U.S. space station in the year 2029, concentrating on training chimps to pilot small “unmanned” pods on potentially hazardous exploratory missions. When his favorite student becomes lost in an electromagnetic storm, Leo follows him in unauthorized pursuit, passing through a major time warp before plummeting into a tropical forest, in a sequence very like the plane crash in “Jurassic Park III.”
The lords of this jungle are only moderately less beastly than hungry raptors. Eliminating the suspensefully ominous cat-and-mouse of the earlier “Apes,” a production that was greenlit by then-Fox production chief and this film’s producer Richard D. Zanuck, new version reveals Leo’s enemies at once, as some soldier apes round up a ragtag band of humans and take them to market in Ape City.
Unlike the brilliant studio-created settings of so many of his other pictures, Burton seems boxed in by production designer Rick Heinrichs’ enormous set, which is neither visually appealing nor stylized in an interesting way. Before long, a picture of a quasidemocratic but military-dominated ape society emerges, one that puts on airs of enlightenment but still allows slavery — of humans. Technologically, it is about on a par with the Roman Empire, with guns, much less electricity, still unknown.
Muddled, unexciting action sees Leo, the curvaceous Daena (Estella Warren) and a few others covertly freed by quirky senator’s daughter Ari (Helena Bonham Carter), whose bleeding-heart interest in society’s victims gives new meaning to the term “human rights activist.” Enraged by such a betrayal, apedom’s ever-agitated military leader, Thade (Tim Roth), convinces Ari’s venerable father (David Warner, back again to “Morgan” monkeyshines at last) to declare martial law, allowing him to embark on a massive search-and-destroy mission against Leo and his little group.
Aside from mild crushes that both Ari and Daena develop on the oblivious Leo, character development is ignored during the humans’ long trek toward the distant location where a signal on Leo’s sensor is guiding them. Nor is suspense ever a factor. The major compensation, then, is repped by the stunning locations through which they pass, notably the Lake Powell area, where much of the first “Apes” was lensed, and the incredible Trona Pinnacles in California’s high desert.
Climactic battle, in which the ill-prepared humans, led by unwilling savior Leo, seem no match for the powerful apes, is interrupted by a cute but hardly surprising “celestial” visitor. Despite the pleas of the two would-be girlfriends, Leo decides to return to Earth. It hardly seems worth it, however; without giving it away, the ending (chosen from among a reported seven or eight possible ones) involves, as did that of the original, a famous U.S. landmark. Unlike the earlier one, however, this one is really, really bad.
When not strictly utilitarian, dialogue by scripters William Broyles Jr., Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal is often sophomorically on-the-nose in its human-ape role reversals. “Extremism in defense of apes is no vice,” rants the crazed Thade, while Ari laments, “It’s disgusting the way we treat humans.” Comic-relief lines given to Paul Giamatti’s slave trader are similarly lame.
Overall, thesps are given little to work with, although Bonham Carter is able to give her do-gooder role some shadings. While physically exuberant, Roth’s Thade can’t compare to the thesp’s memorable villain in “Rob Roy.” Looking like she’s received no direction at all, Warren does little but stride around in her low-cut jungle garb and leg-strap sandals like a modern edition of Anita Ekberg.
In someone’s idea of a joke, original space traveler Heston enacts an uncredited deathbed scene as Thade’s father in which he reveals to his son that apes “evolved” from humans and bequeaths to him an “ancient” weapon — a gun.
The usual seamlessness of Burton’s world is not matched here due to some jarring transitions between studio artifice and location reality. Rick Baker’s ape makeup creations are wonderfully varied — all manner of simians are present and accounted for — and represent a definite leap beyond what was possible 33 years ago.
Lenser Philippe Rousselot copes as best he can with the inconsistent visual backdrops, Colleen Atwood’s costume designs are sometimes striking but don’t always escape cliche, while Danny Elfman’s score begins promisingly with unusual percussion motifs but gradually drifts toward the more conventional.