Remakes have been around nearly as long as Hollywood itself, and not always for the reasons or with the results you’d think. Spectrum Culture’s new feature Re-Make/Re-Model will examine the long history of cinematic remakes, the good movies turned great, the bad ideas turned worse and the weird ones turned boring.

The original Planet of the Apes, based on the 1963 novel by French writer Pierre Boulle, stands as one of the great high-concept science-fiction movies. Though its prosthetic makeup made it a technical marvel at the time, Franklin J. Schaffner’s film works best as a fantastical extrapolation of its driving idea; namely, the possibility of nuclear holocaust and its after-effects. Its famous ending, now parodied out of all suspense, is still one of the great movie twists, one so well-suited to “The Twilight Zone” that it is wholly unsurprising to see Rod Serling listed as one of the film’s two screenwriters.

Like any good high-concept picture, the 1968 Planet keeps things simple. A team of astronauts sent to colonize another world soon find themselves stranded on a planet controlled by highly evolved apes who keep mute humans as their pets and slaves. So bewildering is this upheaval that Charlton Heston, not the world’s most dynamic actor, is reduced to utter bafflement that feeds an explosive rage. So many of his lines, delivered in an impeccable growl and a defiant (or anguished) shout, have since become ubiquitous pop culture touchstones—Heston himself kept some alive for his National Rifle Association pitches—but all the parodies in the world cannot dilute the raw power the actor invests in his lines.

Heston’s history as a civil rights activist also adds an alternative angle to the story. In a sense, the story of apes (a term that has long been employed as a racist slur) subjugating white humans rendered ignorant and incapable of independent action after generations of repressive conditioning doubles as a satiric visualization of white slavery. With the Civil Rights Movement and its fearful white backlash still fresh, the sight of whites treated as primitives must have been a blow to the supposed racial superiority viewpoint still held by some caucasians. And do not forget that one of the astronauts who crash-lands on the planet is black, a defiant statement in 1968.

Ideas, then, power the film more than spectacle. The ape prosthetics are impressive for their day, but Schaffner places them against unremarkable, arid backgrounds. The banality of the desert world in which the narrative takes places is made clear, however, by its conclusion, which, like the best plot twists, does not merely surprise but fundamentally alters the way one views what preceded it. Suddenly, this planet does not seem to be curiously devastated despite the supposed advancement of the apes. Instead, it can be seen as still bearing the scars from human folly from which all life is still re-evolving. It also punctures the thrill one might get from seeing Heston lead his fight against the apes, proving that it was that same warrior zeal that doomed our species and elevated another on our worst principles.

Tim Burton’s 2001 remake, on the other hand, is not a film of ideas. Judging from its haphazard progression, it is not even a film of narrative. This is a movie that begins with Mark Wahlberg chastising a chimpanzee for not performing a spaceship simulation perfectly and ends with a twist that trades the gut-wrenching epiphany of the original’s reveal for one of the most bizarre, meaningless final images of any major film. It is a conclusion that should be accompanied by a “The End…?” credit in animated dripping blood.

But if the 2001 Planet of the Apes is book-ended by the most bewildering nonsense, nothing in between fares any better. Well, not quite: Rick Baker’s prosthetic work is a true marvel, giving expressive nuance to the evolved apes Wahlberg’s character must face. But even the breathtaking detail of Baker’s work becomes a hindrance, as it allows actors covered with pounds of obscuring makeup to still outclass Wahlberg, who can barely muster the energy to get through a line, much less grapple with the terror of his new overlords before ultimately defying them. And given that the subjugated humans, in contrast to those in the original, are now capable of speech and rebellious plotting of their own, Wahlberg’s flatness robs the character of its intended focal point. Why should we believe this outsider is the impetus of a human revolution and a quest for answers when everyone else seems more prepared, coordinated and vengeful than he?

This movie has no idea what it wants to be. Its attempt to offer lip service to the original consists solely of repeating all of Heston’s iconic lines, albeit this time through the mouths of apes. In terms of updating the material, perhaps the most noticeable change is Helena Bonham Carter playing her pro-human chimp with a decidedly ‘90s bent, all prickly sarcasm and graduate-level self-absorption. Yet the problems always circle back to the fundamental lack of a driving force for the story. There is no meaning to Burton’s Planet of the Apes beyond the surface-level narrative, which is so poorly handled that the film does not even work as a straightforward thriller. The closest thing to commentary I can find in this movie is a brief, didactic statement about caging animals late in the film. That tossed-off line would become a thematic focal point for last year’s reboot, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which merely marks one more way that film gave Burton’s disaster its final shove out of the fringe of pop culture memory.

2 Comments

  1. oscar

    March 3, 2013 at 5:06 am

    Let’s hope Dawn of the Planet of the Apes won’t turn into Sunset of the Planet of the Apes considering that, in spite of the wise decision Rise of the Apes focused on simians, the script was weak regarding human dialogue, mainly the vet. And rather than having a solid smart villain –like orangutan Dr. Zaius in the original and a human scientist consultant in Escape from Planet of the Apes- we had a sadistic young fellow torturing chimps in their cages lacking anything else to do dipped in boredom. Caesar was a la Charton Heston-baby-Moses brought to a stepfather “Egyptian court” human palace though not in a basket, just a box. Caesar grew in that foreign environment until he was caught “in chains” not because he killed an Egyptian but because he defended his human grandfather and bit aggressor’s finger. Ultimately Caesar (‘hairy’ in Latin) released his own out of bondage by using a green gas form of virus in the same way Hebrew exodus happened after the green midst in Heston/Moses’ The Ten Commandments. And he led his simian people through Golden Gate bridge above the waters in order to reach the simian version of Canaan promised land: The Red Woods in an excellent metaphor related to the splitting of the Red Sea. Anybody noticed Burton’s apes wore helmets like the ones worn by Egyptian soldiers?
    My lucky guess is Dawn of the Planet of the Apes won’t be Moses’ simian tale but Joshua Hebrew warrior under Moses’ guidance in Full Metal Jacket of the Apes. And just like Rise was a sort of new version of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, this will be the neo-Battle of the Planet of the Apes because in that film gorilla Aldo wanted to take over simians against the more peaceful chimpanzee Caesar while humans were preparing to make war against apes. And this time Caesar’s foe won’t be a gorilla but the Scarface of the chimps named Koba. Since I am writing this on March 3, 2013 and director hasn’t even hired all actors, it’s possible a young teenager would play the equivalent of Caesar’s son in Battle of the Planet of the Apes considering his name was Cornelius after the grandpa. In Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Caesar was hot for female Cornelia but those scenes were deleted, so I ignore if the offspring could be named Cornelius after his mother.
    Let’s hope the masters of special FXs keep on with the humanization of the apes because after all Caesar looked more like a Pithecanthropus Erectus Java Man while the rest of chimps were like common chimps. Let’s hope they remember chimps get gray hair on the back, bigger “eyebrows”, white beard and more spots on the face as they grow older considering these events happen 15 years after Rise. Who knows the third sequel would have the look akin to what we saw in the original movies.

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  2. oscar

    March 3, 2013 at 3:21 pm

    I forgot to mention in Burton’s film the main character was astronaut Leo Davidson. Unconsciously the mind registers that name as Son of David from Lion tribe of Judah. And what was the name of simian god? Semos which is just an anagram from Moses. The very fact Heston/Moses was hired by Burton to play an old chimp and say the same utterance of damnaton to mankind it tells something, doesn’t it?

    And Heston knelt before Statue of Liberty at the very END of the film in the same way Moses’ wife, son and Joshua and his wife KNELT before Moses at the END of the Ten Commandments in a context dialogue about Moses being a TORCH and proclaim LIBERTY among people. That while he RISES UP his arm like the very statue which is a Freemason monument just like Lincoln is. So, let it be written, so let it be done. The fact Heston was awarded with medal of Freedom by president Bush himself whom he backed up.. must be a mere “coincidence”, mustn’t it?

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