Chimp Change

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In 1968 the ape planet was a sunny, salubrious, even Edenic place. Now it is as dark and drear as the conventions of dystopian science fiction demand. Back then the argument between its simian rulers and their human slaves was largely theological. Now the apes are just fascists with a not-so-well-motivated mean streak.

In terms of visual swagger, it would be perfectly possible to prefer director Tim Burton's smart-looking new version of Planet of the Apes to Franklin J. Schaffner's less populous, less intensely designed original. Certainly the art of ape prosthesis has proceeded apace. So has the technology of taking a spaceship through a time warp and crash-landing it in never-never land.

But the 1968 film had something going for it that Burton's doesn't: profound novelty. It was wonderfully instructive to see Waspy Charlton Heston on the receiving end of a formerly despised underclass's contempt; to see an astronaut, a sometime ruler of the universe, become a slave, a hunted outcast; and finally to realize that it was pure white-guy hubris that had caused this reversal of fortune. The film ran on that never stated yet potent moral.

The remake carries no such shock of the new. Instead, it adds Paul Giamatti's mildly comic slave trader (see Peter Ustinov's Spartacus figure), substitutes Helena Bonham Carter's upper-crust bleeding-heart ape for Kim Hunter's more intellectually curious anthropologist, lets Tim Roth snarl and posture as the main bad ape and offers pouty Mark Wahlberg in place of the permanently peeved Heston. Mostly, the new film reminds us that swell production design is no substitute for a fresh, simple and startling idea.