Fearful For 'The Planet of The Apes'

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Who rules the planet? Heston vs. Wahlberg

Tim Burton is making me nervous.

With less than a week to go before "Planet of the Apes" is set to open nationwide July 27, Hollwood's premier auteur of dark fairy tales ("Batman," "Edward Scissorhands" and "Sleepy Hollow") is still finishing the editing and special effects work on his "reimagining" of the 1967 Charlton Heston sci-fi landmark — and was reportedly still shooting major sequences, like the spacecraft crash, as recently as two weeks ago.

Now, I've always had a two-track appreciation of the original. On one hand, it's great science fiction, explicating both nuclear war and racial tensions in the sweeping cinematic language of the starry-eyed late '60s. On the other hand, it's a camp classic — the most respectable (and respectably acted) of the socially-conscious Heston trilogy filled out by "Soylent Green" and "Omega Man," but still a Heston flick, and thus inherently hilarious. (It's a madhouse! A MAAAADHOUSE!!!)

So which one would they reimagine? The project, you may recall, started out as a James Cameron-Arnold Schwarzenegger thing, and I for one was willing to play along. Both of those guys might be past their creative primes, and the Terminator was never going to pull off Heston's sex-machine lines like "There were women, lots of women, lots of love making, but no love" (There's one of those in all his sci-fi flicks; I suspect he had them written into his contract.) But if there was one set of neck tendons that could strain as unintentionally comically as Chuck's in front of the Statue of Liberty — "You blew it up!" "Damn you! Damn you all to hell" — they were Ahnold's.

Then I heard Schwarzenegger was out, and Mark Wahlberg was in. What, were they playing this straight? Were they going to hand Wahlberg a rote babe-in-Apeland job and lean on the special effects? Why didn't they just give it Michael Bay and be done with it? My expectations immediately dropped to nothing, and that was probably the best place for them.

Then I heard about Burton, and immediately my expectations — and the attendant fears for another Kubrick/Spielberg fumble — started to rise again. Burton remains one of the few directors out there making spectacles worth anticipating from an artistic point of view, yet for me, he's also a consistent underachiever for whom the camp side of "Planet of the Apes" could prove a dangerous temptation. I've never been as generously enamored of Burton's black-comedy fairy-tale schtick as a lot of critics. For me, Burton's "delightfully twisted" sense of humor can be wincingly lame — see "Beetlejuice," or better yet don't, and both "Edward Scissorhands" and "Sleepy Hollow" bear the scars of bad jokes — I find it constantly puncturing the operatic visual and emotional fabric that Burton weaves so well.

Yet expectations still kept creeping up. A little research determined that "Batman" and "Batman Returns" were worth watching again if one has let Joel Schumacher spoil one's memories of that highly decent franchise. (I'm still disappointed that Burton's crack at a dark "Superman" with Nicolas Cage never got off the ground.) No doubt Burton had the conceptual chops for a allegory, and at the very least "Apes" was going to be a good-looking movie — the previews quickly put to rest any worries about that. And the Dark Knight experience indicated that when Burton played on a thematically adult field, he could do so with at least three-star dignity.

And I'd normally be able to settle for that. Another "Brian Singer's X-Men," not exactly inspiring but not criminally disappointing either. After all, no matter how precious I might consider "Planet of the Apes" as cultural and cinematic cargo, and no matter how promising that cargo was in Burton's hands (if it had to be somebody updating Franklin J. Schaffner's gloriously dated treatment, it might as well be him) it was just a remake, and you can only expect so much.

But that was before I got a load of this summer. American moviegoers are proving once again that all they really require is a sure thing — witness Hollywood's serving up (and audiences dutifully scarfing down) such rote franchise fare as "Doctor Dolittle 2," "Scary Movie 2," and "The Mummy Returns" — in which "The Mummy" reliably returned — and straight-from-video-game classics like "Tomb Raider" and "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within." (Not to mention the two newest entries, "Jurassic Park III" and "Julia Roberts Romantic Comedy III," otherwise known as "America's Sweethearts.")

But we've also come to expect, a few times a summer, something a little more ambitious, and here the great chefs of Hollywood have failed us. Bay drowned "Pearl Harbor" in a sterile sea of scenic poses and cornball dialogue. Steven Spielberg — who could take the edge off Excalibur — saddled Kubrick's orphaned brainchild "A.I." with the literal and figurative spirit of an animatronic teddy bear. Even the sneak hit "The Fast and the Furious" turned out, much to my disappointment, to be "Point Break" on wheels.

Somewhere in the universe, there has to be something better than "Shrek," and while at this point I'm willing to settle for an artful knock-off — at least you know you're dealing with good material — I shouldn't have to bet my summer on the prospect of Francis Ford Coppola not ruining "Apocalypse Now" with the extra 45 minutes.

Moviegoing man, in the early 21st century, is a jaded and yet helpless species, force-fed movie after movie that Hollywood already knows they like. We've choked down the sequels and the two-hour Playstation infomercials, we've tried to chuckle as "Pearl Harbor" put our butts to sleep — some people are even pretending to have liked "A.I.," possibly because they can't bear the thought of a summer without at least one serious success.

But that's a sad, self-deceiving state of affairs, and it's up to Burton to redeem us all. Because of its cult following, "Planet of the Apes" is a frightfully fragile subject for a rehash. But for a director looking back on a mixed critical and box-office resume, it's also a great opportunity — a classic so married to the quaint sensibilities of its time (and so inimitably and deliciously cheesy) that its legacy just might be well served by a brash stylistic departure of the kind Burton is uniquely capable.

In the age that reveres the post-modern art of the sample, "reimagining" a grand pop-cultural moment like "Planet of the Apes" can be a masterpiece. It can also be just another deflating exercise in hubris, another bland flop from another ham-handed egotist trying to make an omelette out of a Faberge egg. (Damn them. Damn them all to hell.)

Which one is Burton's? Last-minute tinkering of a "reimagining" is rarely a good sign, tending to signal the arrival of a pulse-challenged mediocrity like "X-Men" or worse, a completely fallen souffle like "The Avengers." Will he let us down? Will dedicated pop-cineasts like me — and we're feeling pretty quixotic these days — be forced to accept "Apocalypse Now" (or even A.I.) as the event-movie highlight of the summer?

At least I know that right now Burton, feverishly second-guessing himself in some windowless Hollywood cutting room, is even more nervous than I am.