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A Bit of A Comedown From "The Planet of the Apes"

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KOBOL COLLECTION, 20TH CENTURY FOX

Who rules the planet? Heston vs. Wahlberg

Among the things I learned about "Planet of the Apes" director Tim Burton from the A&E "Biography" that aired Tuesday in the midst of "Biography Goes Ape Week": His childhood hero was Vincent Price. Most of the cast of "Beetlejuice" initially wanted nothing to do with the film. (Good instinct, in my opinion.) "Edward Scissorhands" was basically a relating of Burton growing up in the Hollywood uber-burb of Burbank.

And Burton — this phrase was repeated easily twenty times in the space of the hour — apparently has "a unique vision."

No argument here. "Planet of the Apes" was indeed a fine-looking movie, from the setting to the shots of the apes loping into battle to, well, to Estella Warren and her highly evolved hairdo. That was to be expected from the director of "Scissorhands," "Batman," the even better-looking "Batman Returns," and "Sleepy Hollow." And Iím happy for Burton, whose cachet as one of Hollywoodís bankable directors has been in the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately category since "Mars Attacks," (which I actually liked, but no one else did) — the movie opened to the tune of $69 million, the largest non-holiday opening in history, and should have no trouble turning a profit.

But after two viewings and a week to think about them, I am ready to declare Burtonís "reimagining" of the 1968 classic a disappointment, at least to me.

First, the good points

But not because of the visual style. It would be capricious to declare that a planet on which apes are superior to men must be the sun-baked, post-apocalyptic desertscape in Franklin J. Schaffnerís original. The planet on which Mark Wahlberg crashes is dark, moody and marshy — in fact, itís alarmingly similar to the one in "Empire Strikes Back," in which men are ruled by wrinkled green Jedi instructors — and thatís OK. Dark and moody is Burtonís thing, and he does it well; take what you can get.

And Burtonís "reimagining" did score one outright coup. The insight that apes, if they did indeed take over a planet, would still behave very much like apes — and even more so when angry or otherwise aroused — was a clear improvement on Schaffnerís stiffly human-aping overlords. Led by Tim Rothís manic and maniacal (if slightly hammy) turn as General Thade and Helena Bonham Carter's incredible suffusing of her liberal-princess chimp with a warm and sexy glow, the hairy actors rule this movie. And of course Burtonís choice of Rick Baker as makeup man made it all impressively realistic.

Iíll even go so far as to say that "Planet of the Apes" was far and away the summerís best popcorn-movie blockbuster — though thatís not going very far at all, considering that this is the season that saw the theatrical release of "Spy Kids: Special Edition." But good-looking, action-packed summer popcorn movies should, at least, be a dime a dozen, and left to the Michael Bays of the world. The directors who happen to like scripts about wacky misfits who save the world or wearily heroic everymen who are just trying to get home to their wife and kids (but have to save the world first).

The original "Planet of the Apes" was sci-fi with a conscience and camp with a purpose — not to mention one of popular cinemaís great all-time conceits. (You know, with the apes and the men). It came with higher hopes, and those were the hopes that Burton dashed when he decided to apply his "unique vision" to the sets — but not the script.

It all starts with the human

Just because this film's hero is part of the new generation of action hero — sensitive, bland, little more than a foil for the special effects — doesnít mean this is a good thing. Granted, thereís only one Chuck Heston, and although I stick by my regret that we will never see the next best thing, a frantically bug-eyed Arnold Schwarzenegger screaming at apes in his inimitable Viennese howl, you knew you were going to sacrifice something in the way of charisma this time around.

But even in these politically correct times, when even dark heroes must be driven by some easy-to-understand childhood trauma and Tobey Maguire gets the lead in "Spiderman," thereís an interesting way to do this — think Michael Keaton in "Batman." Wahlbergís (or Burtonís) Capt. Leo Davidson has (apparently) a lovely girlfriend who misses him, as well as the usual complement of cookie-cutter friends who send him a joshing taped message from some idyllic backyard barbecue back on Earth. Come home soon, buddy!

Borrring. Hestonís Taylor, drawn in the same few strokes, was perhaps perfectly suited to be stranded on a high-concept sci-fi planet. Single — and a real ladiesí man, by his own recollection — cynical, bitter and biting, Heston strides on to the "world turned upside down" already knowing that everyone he ever knew was dead, and heís not shedding any tears. Heís searching ("Somewhere in the universe there must be something better than man") and much of the filmís power is derived from the fact that from the beginning, Taylor is on this crazy mixed-up planet to stay.

Davidson, meanwhile, is just on a long hitch doing monkey research for the Air Force. Heís vaguely rebellious in a Keanu Reaves kind of way, complaining about monkeys doing mensí jobs (a nod to "The Right Stuff") and zipping off in his space pod to save his favorite chimp, Pericles. But he couldnít be less interested in the implied philosophical musings that come with the movie — and distinguished it from the mass of movies before or since — and on screen they suffer from lack of nourishment. (Wahlberg does manage a few good lines about how nutty this planet is, but the promising vein is under-tapped.) All he wants to do is go home. ("The Simpsons" already did this better, in a musical called "Stop the Planet of the Apes, I Want to Get Off!")

This, in a nutshell, is the problem with action-adventure movies today: Nobody in them ever wants to have any adventure. Itís all a version of the conceit recently beaten to death by Steven Spielberg increasingly facile "Jurassic Park" series: Characters get on island for some cooked-up reason, find monsters, and for two hours run from monsters in an attempt to get off said island. This ridiculous ritual has the advantage of keeping the island well-preserved for sequel purposes, but it doesnít make for memorable or original movies.

And what about those plot twists?

This is the part when Iím supposed to say SPOILER AHEAD, but if you havenít seen it yet you probably wouldnít be reading this. Given that this was a planet of apes, and not just Earth, the structural nut of the movie — that the genetically enhanced lab apes on Davidsonís ship rose up and took over — is solid enough. Nobody was ever going to top the Statue-of-Liberty-in-the-sand trick from the original; simply having little Pericles be the father of a new civilization would have been more than satisfactory, if not very surprising.

But no. The trio (always a bad sign) responsible for the new POTAís blueprint had to have a different ape start the simian civilization, apparently just so the little fella could return for a truly ludicrous deux-ex-machina moment in the middle of the grand battle for planetary control — and so Davidson can borrow the pod and still get back home to wifey in time for dinner with the Feldmans. And the fact that home isnít what he remembered is the kind of out-of-left-field "surprise" ending that gets mystery writers beat up at Ellery Queen conventions.

Science fiction is about turning things on their head and playing out the consequences, not merely screaming and running back home. When Pericles shows up, giving Davidson a choice between staying with a half-dressed Estella Warren and flying the Yugo-sized space pod into a mysterious electromagnetic storm with unknowable consequences, Davidson doesnít even consider sticking around. In fact, the whole movie heís practically checking his watch — what, is a planet ruled by talking apes not interesting enough for you?

Iíll still turn out for Time Burtonís next movie — heís still one of the only big-time directors around who holds out the promise of something different. And like I said, itís still a pretty good movie. But while the 1968 "Planet of the Apes" succeeded in spite of its shortcomings — mostly technical, some tonal — Burton seemed mostly interested in shoring up his predecessorsí weak points rather than aiming for the stars with the movieís inherent potential for intelligence and at least surface profundity. And the original "Planet of the Apes" was too, well, original to deserve Tim Burton turning it into something that, beneath the ape makeup and "vision," was rather earthbound.

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