Planet of the Apes

Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Tim Roth and Helena Bonham Carter
20th Century Fox
RRP 19.99
Certificate: 12
Available now

Astronaut Leo Davidson pilots his space pod into a mysterious dimensional warp. Emerging on the other side, his pod crash-lands on a strange planet, where humans have become the slaves of walking, talking apes...

Although this film is described by director Burton as a "re-imagining" rather than just a remake of the 1968 classic, several notable elements have been retained from the original movie. For example, the simian society seen here is a low-tech one akin to its 1960s/70s counterpart, as opposed to the futuristic civilisation depicted in the original Pierre Boulle novel. The favoured mode of transportation is still horseback (incidentally, whereas the origins of the apes and the humans are explained, it is never revealed how horses came to be on the planet).

The new movie also reprises some iconic lines of dialogue from the 1968 film. In a couple of instances, the species of the speaker has been changed - and in one case the speaker in question is Charlton Heston himself, in a cameo appearance as the father of the villainous chimp General Thade (Tim Roth). Little touches such as these offer amusement to those viewers who happen to recognise them, although each line also works in context for those who are less familiar with the source material. But, oh, the irony of the gun-loving Heston portraying a character who vehemently condemns such weapons as instruments of violence!

What differs significantly is the structure of the plot, which takes a major detour from that of the original film. Unlike Heston's astronaut, Mark Wahlberg's Davidson has no shipmates to fall by the wayside, but is a loner from the outset. The human slaves, including Davidson's love interest Daena (Estella Warren), possess the power of speech, which enables them to function as characters, in ways that were simply not possible with the virtual Neanderthals encountered by Heston's Commander Taylor. Unfortunately, Davidson himself is a rather bland and unwilling hero compared to the defiant Taylor, although I did sympathise with his reluctance to assume the role of humanity's saviour - shades of Life of Brian there! The gorilla Attar's (Michael Clarke Duncan) change of heart is also rather abrupt.

It is no secret that the original movie's shock "Statue of Liberty" ending, which itself deviated from Boulle's novel, has been replaced by a new twist. Unfortunately, that final scene is an outrageous and unnecessary embellishment. Having said that, it is not entirely nonsensical, and there are clues throughout the film that offer possible explanations (see our Nit-pick section for some theories).

Production values have, of course, improved considerably since the '60s and '70s. No disrespect to the pioneering prosthetic ape masks created by John Chambers, but Rick Baker has built upon these foundations admirably to allow the ape actors a fuller range of facial expressions. Baker also ensures that each mask is unique and individual (as described in one of the behind-the-scenes features). To add to the effectiveness of the actors' transformations, they were also coached on how to reproduce realistic simian movements (which is the subject of a further, though slightly over-long, documentary feature).

Given the challenges posed by their roles, the primate performers are given greater opportunities to impress than the supposed leading man Wahlberg, who gets less of a chance to shine. Of the apes, Tim Roth's Thade, Helena Bonham Carter's sympathetic human-rights campaigning chimp Ari, and Paul Giamatti's comical orang-utan Limbo are particularly impressive. Roddy McDowall's Cornelius is sorely missed, but these guys more than make up for his absence.

But possibly the most remarkable transformation of all is that of Tim Burton. This film possesses surprisingly few of the off-beat qualities and none of the Gothic traits that are usually associated with his work (Beetlejuice, Batman, Edward Scissorhands, Sleepy Hollow, etc). Despite the occasional quirky moment, such as the title sequence, the organ grinder with his human "monkey", Ari writing with her feet, and Limbo hanging upside down, this is probably Burton's most mainstream movie to date. However, although it fails to eclipse the greatness of the original movie, it certainly isn't ape shit either!

Furthermore, the film is complemented by an awesome array of extras, spread over two DVDs. In addition to two separate feature-length commentaries by (a somewhat incoherent) Tim Burton and the musician Danny Elfman, you can also view the film in "enhanced viewing mode". This cues in additional behind-the-scenes footage at pertinent points during the course of the movie, sometimes as inserts in the corner of the screen, sometimes by pausing the movie to play a full-frame featurette. I remain unconvinced about the usefulness of this mode, however - if you just want information, then you have to sit through sizeable chunks of the film to get to it. On the other hand, if you just want to enjoy the movie, you won't want the dialogue to be drowned out whenever an on-screen insert appears.

The second disc contains more than two hours of documentary footage - and that's not counting the various trailers, extended scenes (one of which adds a little heat to the "romance" between Ari and Leo), and interactive features. The interactives include multi-angle views of the production of several key sequences, DVD-ROM features, and screen tests of the actors, make-up, costumes and stunts.

This is definitely one of those "worth buying for the extras alone" products!

Richard McGinlay

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