Rule the Planet.
Longtime DVD Verdict readers might know that I am a Tim Burton fanatic. You might also know that one of my other web projects is a site called The Tim Burton Collective, a fansite for the man and his films. Planet of the Apes was the first of his films announced and released while I was working on that site, and I had the opportunity to follow it every step of the way (in fact, if you go over there you’ll still find some of the interesting stuff uncovered during filming). Upon its release, I saw it twice during the opening weekend, and I thought it was fantastic. However, I seemed to be alone in that thought. The general public, despite the boffo box office, met it with an unenthusiastic shrug, and even Burton’s die-hard fans seemed rather disappointed. In the weeks that followed its release, I felt like Don Quixote in my quest to get people to respect this movie. I’m here to end my apologetic crusade and to encourage you to pick up the DVD immediately, because not only is it a worthy film, it is also a planet-ruling DVD from Fox. Bow your heads!
In 2029, humankind has all but wiped out apes on Earth. The few remaining live in zoos or are used for scientific experiments. In orbit around Saturn, the space station Oberon is used for exploration, with a complement of both human and chimpanzee pilots. The appearance of a strange electromagnetic storm prompts the station to send a chimp-manned pod to gather data about the storm, but it quickly disappears. The human pilot who trained the chimp, Leo (Mark Wahlberg), disobeys orders and follows the chimp into the storm. It acts as a portal in space and time, flinging him across the galaxy and into the future, where he crash-lands on a planet far removed from the evolutionary order of Earth. Here, apes are intelligent and are the ruling class, enslaving the primitive humans. Leo is captured and sold as a slave to Ari (Helena Bonham-Carter), a “human rights activist” chimp who wants humans recognized as the equals of apes. The apes’ ruling senate or the military (the ape society is analogous to Rome, only without an emperor) do not hold her ideals. General Thade (Tim Roth) and Attar (Michael Clarke Duncan) lead the military, and become involved when Ari assists Leo and a band of humans in escaping. The humans of the planet see Leo as a savior who can lead them in rebellion against the oppressive apes. Leo just wants to get home. Thade wants power and to wipe out the humans for good. The apes and humans will be drawn into a climatic battle at Calima, the sacred place where apes were first created.
I will admit that I was skeptical when I first heard Tim Burton had agreed to direct a remake of Planet Of The Apes; to explain that, you need some history on both his career and the winding path of a Planet of the Apes remake. Tim Burton’s career began at Disney in their animation department during its nadir days of the early 1980s. His ambition was to direct live-action, though, and a little-seen short film he directed there, Frankenweenie, was strong enough to land him his first feature film: Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. Its surprise success allowed him some freedom for his next quirky project, the supernatural comedy Beetlejuice. In turn, the popularity of that film meant that Warner Bros. turned over the reins of a project Burton had long coveted: a live-action version of Batman. It was a record-shattering success, and Tim Burton became one of Hollywood’s most respected directors. Other idiosyncratic films followed — Edward Scissorhands, Batman Returns, and Ed Wood. In 1996, he hit a stumbling block when Mars Attacks!, his ode to the pastiche of 1950s sci-fi, was a box office bomb. He would spend the next several years trying to resurrect another comic book franchise at Warner Bros., this time Superman. However, he couldn’t get it to fly, and the project was scrapped (at much expense to WB). Rather abruptly he took on Sleepy Hollow, a project that had been in development for some time. He took what had been destined to be a low-budget slasher picture (its original scribe, makeup artist-turned-wannabe director Kevin Yagher had originally hoped to direct it) and turned it into a stylish homage to the Hammer Studio horror movies of the 1960s and ’70s.
A remake of Planet of the Apes had been in the works for seven years before Tim Burton was hired as director. Fox first became interested when Oliver Stone wanted to produce the remake. Early screenwriters included Terry Hayes (The Road Warrior), Sam Hamm (Burton’s Batman), and Andrew Kevin Walker (Se7en). Directors who were at one time interested included Phillip Noyce (Patriot Games), Chris Columbus (Mrs. Doubtfire), and James Cameron (Titanic). When Cameron was attached, Stan Winston did some work on ape makeup, and it was even rumored that Arnold Schwarzenegger would star in the pic. In early 2000, yet another screenplay draft, this time by William Broyles (Apollo 13), attracted the involvement of Tim Burton.
At first, Burton’s fans couldn’t understand this move. Why suddenly was such a distinctive director taking projects that weren’t uniquely his own? After Batman, he had been involved at every stage with the production of his films (perhaps with the exception of Ed Wood, though he was the only person approached with the screenplay). I think, to a certain extent, since the release of Mars Attacks! he has been in a tenuous position. In Hollywood, you’re only as good as your last picture. For all the critical accolades, 1994’s Ed Wood was a dud at the box office. 1996’s Mars Attacks! made money overseas, but domestically it bombed. He spent oodles of money at Warner Bros. developing the Superman movie; it’s rumored that both Burton and his intended star, Nicolas Cage, had pay-or-play contracts that netted them both over $10 million for a movie that never got made. He needed hits and fast. The solution? Take projects he could put his stamp on, but wouldn’t necessarily shoulder the blame if they didn’t altogether succeed. Shrewd. It certainly worked with Sleepy Hollow, which was distinctly “Burtonesque,” and one of his best films since Batman Returns. And, at least in my opinion, it worked with Planet of the Apes.
In my own opinion and from my involvement with hundreds of Burton fans at the Tim Burton Collective, there are two primary reasons his fans like Burton’s films: his idiosyncratic filmmaking style and the emotional connection they get with his movies. The stories and characters (other than the aforementioned emotional connection with them) are almost secondary. I find it strange, then, that even his fans took Planet of the Apes to task over the very things that aren’t as critical to a successful Tim Burton film: the story and characters. At the risk of incurring hate mail, Burton’s films are as self-consciously artistic as Stanley Kubrick’s, except they’re fun to watch. There is no way you could mistake Planet of the Apes for the work of another auteur — Burton’s stylistic fingerprints are all over the film. It has his peculiar sense of humor (a chase scene through the ape enclave serves little purpose other than to give us quirky apeisms to laugh at), his Dr. Seuss-inspired set and costume design (look at those ape tents that could never be at home in another director’s film, or the swirl patterns that are his trademark), the bombastic Danny Elfman score (the two have worked together on every Burton film except Ed Wood).
Burton’s films have consistently featured main characters that are not necessarily good or evil — they exist somewhere outside the confines of society, so ethical labels do not necessarily apply to them. One label does apply though: they are outsiders. Often, at heart they want to be part of mainstream society, but not at the risk of becoming homogenous. It’s one of the reasons he was ideally suited to the Batman franchise. Or take Mars Attacks! for instance. It’s the triumph of the outsider. Where idiotic mainstream society failed, the geeks and losers defeated the Martian hordes. In Planet of the Apes, you have the ultimate outsider in Leo, a human hurled across time and space to a planet where he may not be the only human, but he is the only one who will not kowtow to the ruling ape establishment. He doesn’t want to be a hero; he just wants to return to normalcy, the planet that he is used to and the social order where apes are not the dominant species. Planet of the Apes naysayers have singled out Mark Wahlberg for derision for not playing a heroic character like, say, Russell Crowe’s Maximus in Gladiator. A sexy, charismatic general isn’t what is called for by this story, and frankly I think Wahlberg does a fine job with the material. He’s always going to have his Marky Mark past to live down, but he’s proved with The Corruptor and Three Kings, and now with Planet of the Apes, that he is a solid actor. Wahlberg understands his character and plays Leo with nonplussed determination. I’d sure rather watch his low-key performance as opposed to Charlton Heston’s wantonly frenzied histrionics in the original.
Speaking of the original, I have no particular love for Franklin Shaffner’s 1968 version, so I didn’t have that instant bias against the “re-imagination” concocted by Burton and screenwriters William Broyles, Lawrence Konner, and Mark Rosenthal. Shaffner’s film had a particularly 1960s agenda to the story of apes ruling over man, namely the dangers of nuclear war and of religion encroaching upon the territory of science. That’s well and good, but those societal issues don’t necessarily need discussing at the dawn of the 21st century. Instead, Burton’s film returns to the thematic roots of Pierre Boulle’s novel upon which both films are based: the double-edged sword that is technology. Also, Burton’s film returns to the conceit that the Ape Planet and Earth are two different planets, and for the surprise ending to one similar to Boulle’s climax. The ending has been often discussed but I feel has been maligned and misinterpreted. I can’t discuss it further without skirting far into spoiler territory.
Perhaps more so than other directors working today, Tim Burton works with a stable of actors and crewmembers. Lisa Marie (his last three films) and Glenn Shadix (Beetlejuice and The Nightmare Before Christmas) both have small roles as apes in this film. Behind the camera, Burton has worked previously with makeup wizard Rick Baker (Ed Wood), costume designer Colleen Atwood (Edward Scissorhands, Sleepy Hollow), and production designer Rick Heinrichs (Batman Returns, Sleepy Hollow). These people know what Burton wants, and Planet of the Apes would not be the film it is without their involvement. Baker has created some of the most realistic makeup that you are likely to ever see. The apes in this film are incredibly detailed, with masks and makeup that allow the actors underneath to emote through the latex. Colleen Atwood’s costumes complement Baker’s makeup, allowing the actors of various statures and builds to play hulking primates convincingly. Besides, the armor of the warriors is just freakin’ cool! Heinrichs built amazing sets on the Sony backlot that not only look right at home in a Burton film, but also give three dimensionality to the apes’ environment — these apes don’t just live at ground level, they have dwellings and businesses at all levels, traversing the space in natural trees and vines. Visually, this is likely Burton’s most detailed film to date, and if you respect his style, the movie is worth seeing for that alone.
We all expect big things from Fox now that they have left the DVD dark ages. Planet of the Apes does not fail to live up to our expectations. The film is presented in its theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1 in an anamorphic transfer encoded at an average bitrate of 7.47Mb/sec. The only drawback is that some scenes are overly dark, but it looked that way in the theater so I don’t think it’s a failure of the transfer. Otherwise, it is perfect. No source defects mar the picture, there is the bare minimum amount of edge enhancement, and the image is sharp, crisp, and filmlike. It is very, very impressive. Audio is available in DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 mixes. My home theater setup is not equipped with DTS, so I only tested the Dolby Digital track. I was slightly disappointed that Fox opted for 384Kb/sec rather than the maximum 448Kb/sec supported by the format, but you will not notice a decline in quality. It is possibly second only to The Phantom Menace for engaging surround audio. Elfman’s score is given added presence by the surround channels, and atmospheric effects abound.
For extras, the special edition moniker is definitely warranted. On the first disc, we are treated to a commentary track with Tim Burton, and an isolated score/commentary track with Danny Elfman. Burton’s commentaries are always amusing, mostly because he is famously inarticulate. You really have to pay attention to him sometimes to crack his obfuscated use of English syntax. However, on this track he is much more relaxed, natural, and intelligible than he has been on other commentaries. Elfman’s score is a treat, and his comments give you quite a bit of insight into how the score was created. DVD-ROM features on the first disc enable you to watch the film whilst reading the screenplay.
On Disc Numero Dos, you get six mini-documentaries, five screen tests, four multi-angle presentations, five extended scenes, a making-of special made for HBO, a music video, two theatrical trailers, six television spots, and fifteen stills galleries. The six documentaries add up to over 90 minutes and look at all aspects of the production: “Simian Academy” (the training the actors went through to play convincing apes), “Face Like a Monkey” (Rick Baker’s makeup), “Ape Couture” (the costuming), “Chimp Symphony Op. 37” (recording the score), “On Location: Lake Powell” (like the title says), and “Swinging from the Trees” (the stunts). The screen tests give you split-screen looks at test footage shot of the makeup and costumes in action. The multi-angle segments are on-set views of what went into filming four complicated scenes. The extended scenes do not contain much extra footage; this movie was on a rigid schedule, so I doubt much extra footage exists. The HBO special is around 30 minutes long, and consists mostly of footage you’ll see in the documentaries, hosted by Michael Clarke Duncan. I would’ve preferred if they had included the special that aired on the Fox network, mostly because it was hosted by Estella Warren, and who’s mug would you rather look at for a half-hour? The music video is of Paul Oakenfold’s “Rule the Planet” remix of the film’s themes. The other extras are standard fare, but they make for a complete package. Fox is commended for an outstanding special edition.
If Burton’s Planet of the Apes has one damaging flaw, it’s that it care little for its human characters. It gives the humans of the Ape Planet the ability to talk but nothing interesting to say. Estella Warren looks very fetching in her flesh-baring minidress, but that’s all that is required of her. Kris Kristofferson, one of my favorite character actor meanies, gets to glower as one of the enslaved humans, but his exit from the film, meant to be heroic, is anticlimactic. Erick Avari seems right at home as the timid majordomo to Ari’s family, but he too is given little interesting to do, and the movie never explores why a human would be so loyal to his captors. Another flaw is that a rivalry between Attar and Krull (played by Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), a disgraced general now in the service of Ari’s family, is hinted at but not fleshed out enough to give any significance to their showdown at the end of the film.
I won’t claim that Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes is the best film ever made. It’s not even his best film; I think that honor would go to Edward Scissorhands or Batman Returns, even if I do say Mars Attacks! is my favorite. I will say that it did not deserve the apathy or rancor that greeted it. There’s no better way to discover this movie, or to dig deeper for its joys, than with Fox’s superlative DVD presentation.
Okay, so about that ending…spoilers to follow. Skip to The Verdict if you want to avoid them.
Here’s how I interpret the film. The opening takes place in 2029. When Leo’s pod enters the storm (13:19 into the film), the chronometer goes wild and the last year displayed is 2427. Later, we find out that the Oberon space station had arrived on the Ape Planet thousands of years in the past, and at the film’s climax, the chimp’s pod, which had entered the storm first, finally arrives. When Leo leaves the Ape Planet and returns to Earth through the storm, his pod’s chronometer moves backward (at 1:49:53 into the film), though this time the first year displayed is 2684 and moves back to 2155 (126 years after Leo left). When he reaches Earth, human civilization has been co-opted by apes, with the shocker being that the statue of President Abraham Lincoln has been replaced by…General Thade! Huh? Yes, that does seem rather weird, but I think the seeds for that surprise can be found in the film. My first explanation is my theory for the sci-fi physics of the electromagnetic storm. Objects that travel through it appear to do so in a last-in, first-out manner. I think the most logical explanation for that can be found in the mass of the objects that travel though — The Oberon was a massive object, and traveled the furthest through the storm, several thousand years into the past. The chimp Pericles’ pod was the lightest, ergo it did not travel as far. On the return trip, Leo’s pod was lighter than the travel device employed by Thade. What did Thade use? Likely either Leo’s wrecked pod in the swamp, or a heretofore unknown pod still intact on the Oberon. Pericles flew Alpha Pod, and Leo flew Delta Pod, so it’s entirely reasonable that there were also Beta and Gamma, perhaps unmanned that arrived even later. Thade may have traveled alone or with Pericles as a pilot. That’s a minor digression. How did Earth succumb to the apes within only a hundred or so years? For that, you have to listen to the conversation beginning at 54:38 into the film. Leo explains about apes on Earth, saying that they are all in captivity and are used for scientific experiments. It’s likely that these are the very experiments that produced the super-apes like Semos that developed into the simian society on the Ape Planet. Ergo, the potential for the very thing to happen on Earth existed. The most telling aspect of the conversation is the conclusion. Krull asks, “Why don’t your apes object to the way you treat them?” Leo replies “Our apes can’t talk,” and Ari offers “Maybe they choose not to, given the way you treat them.” My theory is that Thade acted as a catalyst for the rapid evolution of ape society — a strong, charismatic leader was all Earth’s apes needed to rebel. In his honor, the newly evolved apes replaced the symbol of a humanitarian leader with the visage of their “savior.” Or, as I like to say, that’s what a barking dog told me.