“Some of it is very much me. Some of it…isn’t.” That’s Bruce Wayne in Tim Burton’s first Batman movie, referring to his armor collection. Burton could point to his own collection, his filmography, and say the same thing. Edward Scissorhands, for instance, was very much Burton. Some parts of his bigger films — Batman, Mars Attacks! — are very much Burton, and some parts…aren’t. Planet of the Apes would seem at first glance to be very much not Burton — a suit of armor that doesn’t fit him. But he wears it well anyway, and it’s fascinating to see him work on material that doesn’t click perfectly with his gothic/carnival obsessions.
I took the movie as a fine, chest-pounding jungle adventure — the sort of square sci-fi epic Burton tries and, amusingly, fails to do straight. The soul of this Planet of the Apes is illogic — bursts of simian passion, rage, fear, even lust: I will not soon forget the moment when a seductive female ape gazes through a veil at her husband, then leaps onto the bed with a thrashing mating call. Aided by Rick Baker’s astonishing make-up, Burton makes the apes more distinct and, well, human than the humans ever are, and I’m sure this is by design. As in the 1968 original and its four sequels, we’re meant to look upon the apes and see ourselves. The actual humans in chains onscreen have little to do with us.
The new movie, which begins 28 years from now, follows pilot Leo Davidson (Mark Wahlberg) as he pursues an off-course space pod containing his favorite test-pilot monkey. Leo’s pod crashes on a futuristic planet where apes reign (in a heavily militaristic society, as in the earlier films) and humans are slaves. The saturnine General Thade (Tim Roth, swinging his shoulders and glowering) runs the army, meaning he runs the show and would like to run humans into a mass grave; his ideological opposite is Ari (Helena Bonham Carter), basically Kim Hunter’s Zira version 2.0, who detests the subjugation of humans. She detests it even more when Leo is captured; she develops eyelash-flutter whenever he’s around.
This Planet of the Apes is all about noise and chaos — the unstable mix of intellect and brutal will that’s intended to mirror our own evolution. The script, by William Broyles Jr., Lawrence Konner, and Mark Rosenthal, is short on intellect and long on brutal will; whatever ideas you take away from the theater are the ones you brought with you. Nobody in the movie stands around debating the ethics of, say, experimenting on human slaves or breeding them genetically. Burton understands that the five earlier Apes movies already did the furrowed-brow thing long past the point of relevance (the series really should’ve stopped at the third one).
This director isn’t a thinker; he brings more of a painterly mindset to the franchise, letting artists like Rick Baker, set designer Rick Heinrichs, costumer Colleen Atwood, and cinematographer Phillipe Rousselot work their primal, primate magic (Danny Elfman’s flamboyant Wagnerian outbursts complete the movie’s epic flavor). So what if Burton loses interest in the human characters? I for one don’t blame him; the movie isn’t called Planet of the Humans, and they’re not who we came to see. Mark Wahlberg, that sincere, amiable, total blank of an actor, is consistently knocked off the screen by great actors in ape latex. Tim Roth, though mesmerizing in his relentless combative spewing, is a little too conscious of playing a mean motorscooter; I was more taken with Carter’s avid, idealistic Ari, or Paul Giamatti’s cringing sleazebag slave trader Limbo — Giamatti could act with a bucket over his head and still rock the house — or even Charlton Heston in his belabored yet still gotta-see-it-for-yourself in-joke cameo as Thade’s dying great-ape father, who gives humanity props for inventing guns (and the NRA, one assumes).
Planet of the Apes is far from Tim Burton’s best film, but I don’t think it’s a sell-out or an anomaly in his portfolio, as some have charged. Here you have a lavishly designed atmosphere, in which the “freaks” — the Other, the characters we don’t see when we look around us every day — are the clear focus, while humans take a back seat. This pretty well describes all of Burton’s films (think of how lifeless Mars Attacks was before the Martians landed), and here, at last, Burton puts his bias up front. He’d much rather play with sets and latex than with bland, interchangeable people (a contemptuous ape hilariously confirms this when he snorts that humans all look alike) — he’s comfortable on this planet where apes enjoy sex, drugs, and rock and roll (or their version of it, anyway) while humans rot in cages. It’s as if the misfits of our world — the apes in zoos, the monkeys experimented on and shot up into space — finally triumphed. The more you think about it, the more Planet of the Apes seems very much Tim Burton.