The good news is that Tim Burton has finally made a movie that is completely accessible to all audiences. That’s also the bad news. The usual gripes about Burton’s lack of story sense are not likely to be brought to bear on Planet of the Apes, which is admirably linear in construction. It’s a Tim Burton film that is almost entirely plot and action driven, and that results in a truly enjoyable grade A sci-fi action picture. If you approach it on that level, it’s fine. However, if you’re expecting something more from the man who made Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood and Sleepy Hollow, you’re going to be let down. The basic Burton theme of a character who’s a complete outsider is still there. Indeed, it’s hard to find anyone more of an outsider than Captain Leo Davidson (Mark Wahlberg) — a thinking man from the 21st century who suddenly finds himself marooned on a planet where apes are in charge and mankind has been reduced to tribal savagery. The crossing of lines between outsider and insider is certainly in evidence, as well. The film even takes this an interesting step further that is virtually unique in moviedom by daring to suggest the beginnings of a romance between the hero and a female ape, Ari (Helena Bonham Carter), who is certainly more appealing as a character than the vapid — but more traditional — human romantic lead, Daena (Estella Warren). For that matter, Burton may be presenting a new take on the nature of the outsider this round, giving us an outsider hero who becomes accepted and then willfully throws that acceptance away. Somewhere around the edges, Burton seems to be saying that outsider status may, on some level, be deliberate as much as a natural occurrence. All this is very Burtonesque, and the last can even be read as a progression in his personal examination of the societal dealings of people who are “different.” The problem is, once you strip Planet of the Apes of these themes, what you’re left with is a surprisingly workmanlike directing job from Burton. It’s good, but it never seems inspired. Where are the dynamic compositions of his other works? Where are the sinuous camera movements? Where is the unabashed romanticism? They’re simply not there. Once the film’s evocative credit sequence, which hints that we’re about to see something truly mythic and is backed by one of Danny Elfman’s most powerful compositions (an unsettling, percussion-based work that has more in common with Elfman’s rock music days with Oingo Boingo than his film scoring), the style of the film becomes strangely ordinary. The film is gorgeously designed, but Burton does very little with this design. The exotic nature of the settings is almost never enhanced by anything Burton does with them. As a result, we have a film that seems more art-directed than directed. If Burton was trying to prove that he could make a traditionally good movie, he has succeeded. In so doing, though, he has compromised and made a film that never truly soars. Of course, none of this answers the obvious question: Has Burton’s new take on the material outclassed the original? All in all, I’d say, yes, even though the existence of the original film clearly informs Burton’s “re-imagining.” (The first line uttered by an ape is a direct parody of one of the more famous lines from the original, and Charlton Heston’s unbilled cameo affords him the chance to utter his most well-known line from the old film in a totally different context.) The original had a marked tendency toward a camp sensibility that is pleasantly absent here (except when the new film draws on the old one), not to mention a quaint take on the ape civilization that quickly dated and make-up that was hardly convincing. There’s also a genuine ferocity in Burton’s film — especially in the no-holds-barred genocidal villainy of Tim Roth’s Thade — that is far more involving and unsettling than anything in the original. It’s fast, it’s fun, it’s exciting. You’re not likely to find a better film of its type anytime soon. It’s only serious failing — apart from a final scene that unwisely tries to top the twist ending of the original — is that it’s not as special as Burton’s name on it would make you expect.
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