It is strange how, in a week whereby I watch Batman (I was not happy about that film) and Batman Returns for the first time, I then write about another previously-owned property, Tim-Burton-ised for a new audience. He claimed it was a ‘re-imagining’ of the original Planet of the Apes film. Since the end of the original saga, the film was in development in different stages from 1988. Over many years with a wide range of directors (Peter Jackson, Chris Columbus, James Cameron, Sam Raimi, Oliver Stone) and a diverse possibility of actors (Tom Cruise, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Charlie Sheen), it seems the reboot of Planet of the Apes could’ve been anything. Arnie, the ‘scientist’ travelling back in time? A half-humn, half-ape creature within the Ape version of the Renaissance? A “sword and sandal spectacular” set within an Ape version of the Roman civilisation? These were all considered … but it eventually fell to Gothic Tim Burton signing on to direct and Richard D. Zanuck producing.
The problem with the earlier saga was how small in scale it was. The idea of Apes taking over the world simply didn’t have the same effect when you only see the apes fighting within car parks and in spaces which are clearly stage-sets. From the opening scene we see what we had never seen before – lots of space. Bar Taylor’s (Charlton Heston) brief introduction at the start of Planet of the Apes, we never truly see the wide, expansive galaxy that earth hovers within. Even in Escape from the Planet of the Apes, whereby Zira and Cornelius crash-land on earth and tell us how earth was destroyed, we don’t see their journey.
Tim Burton, and his $100m budget ensures that we see all of space. Our hero is Leo Davidson (Mark Wahlberg), an astronaut on board a mothership which trains apes to explore areas which are unsafe. Davidson’s favourite chimpanzee is sent into an electro-magnetic storm and, without question, Davidson decides to save him when it is clear that he has been ‘lost. A time-warp takes Davidson onto a different planet whereby Apes are the dominant species and, in the same manner as Schaffner’s original, Davidsons – amongst primative humans – is chased by apes, and caught.
Already a change in the characterisation of our lead role – he is now not neccessarily a morally-ambiguous lead, he is very-much a hero. In the opening sequence, Davidson is a hero – he saves apes. To make matters worse, not only does a stunning female-slave Daena (Estella Warren) fall for him, but it seems that Ari (Helena Bonham-Carter), a liberal ape who doesn’t agree with slave humans, also falls for him. The apes and humans all speak, and the subtext about communication is lost. The film knows what it is – a heroic journey whereby our hero has to ‘win’ by defeating the enemy.
General Thade (Tim Roth) and General Attar (Michael Clarke Duncan) provide our hero with his enemies. Chalton Heston even cameo’s as the aging Father of Thade, upping the ante, by showing Thade that ‘guns’ exist. This is all alongside the religious subtext regarding a holy site named CA-LI-MA and a Messianic figure in Semos – who the apes are descendants of.
Interestingly, pre-9/11, the story is very much about extremists as General Thade is overtly ‘religious’, even uttering the lines:
“Extremism in defense of apes is no vice”
The film is highliy critical of faith, but equally undermines it by implying that Wahlberg himself is a Messianic figure. Ari tells him how he is “sent from the stars” and his actions inspire the humans, leading the way to their salvation – and to war.
As previously noted, this is epic in scale. At the time, films including The Mummy, Gladiator and Armageddon were the buzz around Hollywood. The ancient civilisations in the former-two seen as a major draw at the box-office. Egyptian and Roman Empire’s celebrated on the silver-screen – could the Ape Empire be celebrated on such a scale too? Throw into the mix a space-station, science-fiction element that – in the third act – is found again, having crashed to planet earth and it seems that you have a combination of all three. The latter is a bit of a stretch, but it is fair to say that both Armageddon and Deep Impact were huge-draws in 1998, and both of which spent a considerable amount of time on-board a spaceship.
But the war-finale pre-dates The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and combined with the religious overtones and historic civilisation, it caught the imagination of an audience keen to watch action sequences on such a large scale. We see explosions and a battlefield pitting humans against apes – a far cry from Battle for the Planet of the Apes. Mid-fight, a spaceship lands, and the ape Davidson originally seeked, arrives on the planet.
The time-warp element is important to the apes film and Burton doesn’t leave it out. IT is integral to the plot. Davidson managed to survive blasting through a time-storm, the chimpanzee seems to do the same – whilst the spaceship Davidson was on fails to jump the time-warp and instead crashes down on the planet, beginning new life and new conflicts. But that is not all. God-like Mark Wahlberg sets off, leaving the planet (this time, in-keeping with Pierre Boulles novel) and returning to Earth before finding that time has been altered and General Thade has replaced Abraham Lincoln. It makes no sense. Don’t even start to think it through – it is ridiculous.
This finale sharply pulls everything sharply into focus- the film is merely a light-hearted joke. This is an Apes film without depth, without personality and without meaning. Prior to Burton’s Planet of the Apes, every film raised a social-issue that you could discuss afterwards. The film brings nothing new to the argument. It hints at ideas about equality, faith and ‘truth’, but it doesn’t resolve the issues. In 1968, Planet of the Apes conclusively stated how earth will destroy itself if it continues in the same manner. Beneath The Planet of the Apes tackled nuclear power – and our obsession with weapons and power. Escape from the Planet of the Apes tackles the fear of exploration, and fear of acceptance. This film doesn’t directly conclude any of the issues raised and, within all the fighting and fire, you know that it simplifies everything. Taylor wasn’t neccessarily ‘good’, Ceasar was complex – frustrated by the injustice and angry about human greed. Leo Davidson is ‘Good’. Ari and all the humans are ‘Good’. Thade, Attar and Limbo are ‘bad’. They need to all get along … and by the end of the film, they do get along. Praise be to Semos.
I'm going to try to borrow this from someone so I can watch it again. I haven't seen it since around the time it came out.
But from reading this, I wonder if the Messianic connection is really that overt, and if it totally negates the criticisms of faith. I get that it's trying to be more of a straight-forward film. Does that necessarily make it a lesser version? Does it stand up on its own as a more paired down story?
I mean, since we already have the original, can't this just be a grander, simpler version that still accomplishes what it sets out to do (minus the HORRIBLE ending)?
Sorry about the lateness in reply! But yeah, I think the Messianic connection is a huge theme throughout with no true convictions from the filmmakers. (1) the CA-LI-MA and Holy Land attitude, (2) the Semos/Christ like Ape who they await a second-coming from and (3) the Messiah-like attitude the humans have towards Wahlberg. All these things clearly show how it is a theme … but it is too messy to truly understand the point which is being made.