BOMB SQUAD: PLANET OF THE APES (PART THREE): TIM BURTON’S PLANET OF THE APES (2001)

Written By: François-Noël Vanasse

We happy few here at Porkchop don’t take any special pleasure in bashing films. After all, in an ideal world all movies would be pitch perfect works of art endlessly and infinitely enjoyable. Unfortunately, and for a variety of often unavoidable reasons, some films are commercial or critical failures. We call those movies “bombs” and try to pick them apart in a feature we call Bomb Squad.

Pierre Boulle’s original vision featured apes in suits driving cars and living in a normal modern city. When the producers adapted the story to the screen, they ran into a perceived problem; the apes needed to be menacing, frightening, and they felt that dressing them in lab coats and suits made them look silly. The architecture and culture of the apes took on a more primitive feel with Flintstones-like stone structures for buildings and horses instead of cars. They retained rifles, however, along with certain advanced medical equipment such as the ability to perform brain surgery and blood transfusions. When Tim Burton adapted the series into his 2001 remake he drew inspiration from and expanded upon the costumes, buildings, and props invented for the original 1968 film. In fact, his film opens with slow, panning close ups of ape armor, art, and symbolism.

Despite all of the effort put into the design, the costumes, and the make-up, the film runs into the same problem the ‘68 one mostly avoided: it’s goofy. The apes might behave a bit more like real apes but all of the four-legged running, climbing, leaping, snarling, sniffing, and hooting makes them seem extremely silly and robs them of their power. Their “civilization” isn’t a parody of ours with rigid law and order propping up a political and social elite, it’s just ape-ing ours and it seems barely held together.

Planet of the Apes (2001)

You know one day they’ll tell a story about a human who came from the stars and changed our world and some will say it was just a fairy tale, that it was never real, but I’ll know.

– Ari

The year is 2029 and Leo Davidson (Mark Wahlberg) is a pilot stationed aboard the USAF Orbital Research Station Oberon for the past two years. His job consists of supervising and training chimpanzees to pilot unmanned probe pods. Though Leo is eager to fly missions, the powers that be are unwilling to put human pilots at risk, only permitting apes to pilot missions. In Leo’s time, great apes have become extinct in the wild due to habitat destruction and the apes aboard the station have been genetically altered. Leo calls Pericles, the chimpanzee who fails a flight simulation in the film’s opening moments, a “gene-spliced, chromosome enhanced, state-of-the-art monkey”. Leo also learns that Pericles is about to father a child with a female chimp aboard the station. This information goes by pretty quick and suggests a level of thought and world-building put into this movie that utterly fails to come across in the final product.

Pericles is sent out on a mission to take readings from an electromagnetic space storm but ends up off-course and disappears from the station’s monitoring equipment. Denied the opportunity to go on the mission himself and further prevented from rescuing Pericles, Leo violates orders and pilots a second pod into the storm. Portals open and close, pods appear and disappear, and Leo’s pod is jostled about while the time clock on his computer screen begins counting upwards through the centuries. Some 500 years go by on screen (but it’s meant to be several thousand) and Leo crashlands through the jungle before sinking into a swamp. After making it ashore, Leo wanders into the path of a scraggly bearded man named, according to the script, Karubi (Kris Kristofferson). This movie is pretty bad at giving or using character names although they can be seen listed in credits. Karubi is followed by several other humans, most of them his family members, including his daughter Daena (Estella Warren). They are on the run, and Leo, wide-eyed, catches glimpses of what is chasing the group before hurrying after them. A great deal of time was spent developing Heston’s character in the ‘68 film, but I don’t really understand Wahlberg’s motivations beyond a general itch to fly his own missions. Leo spends most of the story in a state of confusion and disorientation, which Wahlberg carries well, with only a few scenes of decisiveness and purpose which revolve around his need to recover a macguffin-like beacon tracking device.

The apes appear and begin grabbing and tackling the humans. In the thick tropical rainforest they hang and leap from trees, race through on horseback, and chase the humans down. The geography of the region is apparently Ape City lying on a hillside in the distance, with flat lava plains between the city and the jungle. The humans are locked inside a cage on a cart drawn by a team of enslaved humans and carried into the city. There’s some unnecessary but probably inevitable references to the ‘68 version here; after General Thade (Tim Roth) complains that “this one looked at me”, Leo, in his shock at hearing an ape speak, grabs the boot belonging to Attar (Michael Clarke Duncan) who responds with “Get your stinking hands off me you damn, dirty, human!” and kicks Leo in the face.

As the captured humans are carted through the city, they are teased and berated by the ape citizens who generally mock and abuse them including accusing them of smelling bad. We get to see some pretty silly things which look more like hallucinations than science-fiction, such as apes lounging about smoking from a hookah, an ape sitting in a barber’s chair complete with a rotating barber pole made of wood, and a little person (Martin Klebba) dancing for an ape organ grinder. We catch glimpses of some other interesting things like a procession of hooded monks or an ape with a briefcase but most of the attention is spent on some ape children playing sports in the street wearing oddly labelled jerseys. These same children clear the way for the cart and then gleefully throw stones at the humans before being stopped by the chimpanzee Ari (Helena Bonham Carter), a human rights activist and daughter of the influential senator Sandar (David Warner). The humans are brought before a slave-trader, an orangutan named Limbo (Paul Giamatti), where they are separated by gender and supposedly cleaned. Another reference to the ‘68 film takes place here when Limbo inquires whether these are the humans who have been raiding the orchards. He is interrupted from describing an old family recipe to prevent such raids, which involves eviscerating and stringing up a human. General Thade has made record time rushing back from the jungle on horseback, getting changed, and visiting his niece in order to bring her to pick out a pet human from Limbo’s stock. Ari watches all of this with a sneer and says “It’s disgusting the way we treat humans, it demeans us as much as them” before she rushes in.
Ari arrives in time to interrupt Daena getting branded with a pitchfork symbol that I at first took to be Limbo’s mark since the reason property is branded is so that it can be recognizably proven to belong to the owner. However, slaves are occasionally marked so as to distinguish them from freemen and it appears that a version of that is what is taking place here. General Thade later refers to this symbol as “their mark”. I finally realized that it’s meant to be derived from the USAF insignia logo for the Oberon which is based on the physical shape of the station itself. It’s a little bit of world-building that, like the genetic engineering, gets lost in the shuffle.

Ari agrees to help Leo by purchasing him and Daena. They are tasked with serving the guests at her father’s dinner party which is also attended by Attar and General Thade. I feel as if the movie really begins to lose the plot here. There are several nearly interesting discussions about human culture, whether or not they possess souls, and the lack of information about them due to the ape army’s disposal of remains. Thade points out that their brutal methods are necessary because humans outnumber apes four to one. That’s a pretty stunning figure. In the previous ape series and the original novel humans became complacent, dependent upon the apes, and eventually dumb and mute. The apes also had access to firearms. In Burton’s version, the only guns are three USAF laser pistols and ape dominance seems to rest solely on the idea that, pound for pound, ape musculature is stronger than in humans. Even with assistance from genetic engineering, however, four to one is a pretty big number and so the Planet of the Apes scenario should be demographically unsustainable.

Leo purloins a knife and uses it to pick the lock on his cage that evening. Daena agrees to lead him back to his crash site on the condition that he also free the rest of her family. They sneak to Limbo’s cells and bust everyone out and then run through a series of ape homes, vignettes which are played for laughs, in order to find and free the little girl who was sold as a pet to Thade’s niece. Afterward, they run into Ari who agrees to lead them out of the city. The little girl on whom so much effort was spent is left behind, for her protection, with one of Ari’s other human slaves and the group sneaks into the tunnels but not before being spotted by Attar. Daena’s father, wounded offscreen, attacks Attar to buy time for the others. He is easily subdued by Attar and then dispatched by Thade which is odd because in his previous scene Thade had been taken to Leo’s crash site by two gorilla soldiers who witnessed Leo’s crash landing. Thade thanked them for bringing the information to him and then killed them and dumped the bodies in order to keep the information secret.

When they reach the jungle, Leo discovers the apes suffer from waterfright after he is forced to dive into a small swamp to recover supplies from his sunken ship. Needlessly concerned over the length of time Leo spends submerged, Daena decides to jump in after him where she discovers the carcasses of the two gorillas Thade murdered earlier. Leo recovers his laser pistol and his homing beacon tracking device which alerts him that the homing beacon is broadcasting from the planet’s surface. The group heads in that direction but is momentarily stalled by the arrival of Limbo and some handlers who are scared off by the explosions from Leo’s gun. Limbo is placed in chains and Ari’s gorilla servant Krull (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) immediately confiscates and smashes the gun out of the baseless fear that Leo will turn it against them.

Thade uses Attar’s information that Ari was accompanying the humans to persuade her father that she has been kidnapped. In order to mount a successful rescue mission, Thade demands that martial law be declared, putting him in command. Ape politics are apparently based on the ancient Roman republic. Before marching out with his army to chase down the humans, Thade is summoned before his sick father who, with his dying breath, informs Thade that in the distant past humans were the masters and apes the slaves and gifts him an old rusted pistol which has been passed down along with that terrible knowledge, as proof of the words. Charlton Heston plays Thade’s daddy and gets to sputter out a version of “damn them all to hell!” which are the famous last lines of the ‘68 flick and this character’s dying words.

The humans cross into the wasteland and stumble upon the 2001 version of the scarecrow crosses which marked the border between the green belts and the Forbidden Zone. This time they are intended to warn passersby that they are heading toward the path which leads to the forbidden area and Calima, the ruined holy origin of ape civilization. Leo determines that the beacon is in that direction and so the group continues on until they stumble upon an ape military outpost beside a river. Leo hatches a plan to steal horses and swim them across the river. Attar arrives at the camp and declares his intentions to whip the soldiers into shape in preparation for the anticipated arrival of the human fugitives before retreating into his tent for evening prayers. The apes worship a salvific figure named Semos whom they call the father of all apes and from whom Thade’s family claim direct descent. Attar prays for Semos’ prophesied return at Calima in order to lead the apes into a new era of peace and prosperity. Meanwhile, Leo sneaks into the corral, harnesses the horses, gives the others brief horseback riding instructions, and then proceeds to raise hell throughout the camp by throwing the burning torches the apes were using as lights in order to set their tents alight. Ari falls off her horse, Leo falls off his horse, and Leo carries Ari across the river on his back. Attar and Krull glower at each other from across the river and it’s later explained that Krull was once an important general before he was ousted by Thade and that Attar was Krull’s most promising pupil. This bit of exposition is also how we learn Attar’s name. Leo is confronted for the first time, at least on screen, with the idea that the other humans believe him to be their savior. A love triangle also apparently develops between Ari, Leo, and Daena.

Attar reports back to Thade in the city where the general throws a pretty huge fit but apologizes to Attar afterwards because supposedly he considers them to be close friends. The ape army finally marches out of the city.

Leo is confused upon arriving at Calima. It’s a big spiky ruin and they step inside. With no sign of the Oberon’s crew and the knowledge that Calima has been there for thousands of years, Leo finally makes the startling discovery that Calima is, in fact, the crashed remains of the orbital research station which followed Leo into the storm. Calima is revealed to be two letters of every word in a sign labelled “CAUTION LIVE ANIMALS” otherwise caked with dust. Leo also finds a human skull buried in the sand inside the structure. Leo uses a handprint scanner to open the glass doors of the ship’s bridge and scrapes some more caked dust off the controls and screens in order to access the ship’s visual log. There are only two recordings. The first is a mayday which was actually briefly broadcast back at the Oberon through the storm at the beginning of the film thus demonstrating the existence of a time paradox but the image is clearer the second time and reveals that they’ve crash landed on an uncharted and uninhabited planet but have successfully cobbled together a sustainable society with the help of the strong and intelligent primates. The second message details an ape rebellion led by Semos, an ape born after Leo and Pericles disappeared, hinted to be the son of the latter, and the video ends with the apparent murder of the human ape handler Lieutenant Colonel Grace Alexander (Anne Ramsay), an old woman in the video.

Faced with the knowledge that he has no way to return home and an ape army at his back, Leo walks out of the ruins and is greeted with the dunes surrounding Calima now swarming with human refugees arriving from every direction. Somehow the information that a human has dared to defy the apes has spread among the human tribes and villages and they’ve all come to Calima to witness him. Leo basically divides the rest of his scenes between trying to convince the humans to give up, go home, and save themselves, and feeling sorry for himself. Luckily, he also receives divine inspiration to check the ship’s fuel stores and discovers that fuel tank number 3 is still full. Leo manages to bait the attacking ape army into charging, gathers the humans safely above and behind the wreckage of the exhaust, is pointlessly forced to rescue one of the human teens whose horse had collapsed on top of him, and successfully remotely activates the Oberon’s burners which blasts the enemy apes hundreds of feet into the air and fills the air with fire and dust. When the concussed apes begin to reawaken, Leo leads a charge onto the battlefield to kill the survivors. Thade is only momentarily held back by the threat of the depleted rocket engines and leads the rest of the apes into the fray. Fighting ensues, Attar has a showdown with Krull, Ari attacks Thade, and humans are turned into flying ragdolls by ape punches. Krull dies, Ari rescues Daena, and Leo is losing.

Fortunately, a literal deus ex machina descends from the heavens in the form of Pericles and his spacepod. The apes stop fighting and bow before the second coming of their lord Semos. Thade just looks impatient, perhaps he’s somehow pieced together that this isn’t Semos. Leo walks up to the pod, helps Pericles out of his seat, and takes a pack with a fresh pistol out of the ship before walking hand in hand with Pericles through the crowd. Thade attacks Leo and Pericles takes off running for the bowels of Calima. Thade chases Leo inside as well and they have a brief tussle which is interrupted by Pericles who ends up being thrown against a wall and Thade gets hold of the pistol after some acrobatics. The rest of the group enters Calima and Attar watches a bruised and bloodied Pericles crawl his way back into his cage aboard the Oberon as he was trained to do. Thade holds Leo at gunpoint but Leo successfully uses his handprint to lock Thade inside the derelict bridge. Thade pleads for his release but is denied by Attar who renounces his religious beliefs as a lie perpetrated by Thade’s family, as well as Ari who merely shows him her branded palm from when she met with Thade in secret and pleaded with him to accept her in exchange for sparing Leo. Enraged, Thade fires the pistol repeatedly until the room fills with sparks and smoke and when the room clears again it shows Thade cowering beneath a desk.

Attar declares that humans and apes will now live together in peace and harmony as it should have always been, Leo kisses Ari and Daena goodbye, leaves most of his supplies with Limbo for him to sell, leaves Pericles in Ari’s care, and climbs back inside the spacepod to fly back into the storm and hopefully return home. Upon his departure we get to see that the planet has half-a-dozen or so moons which proves that, like Soror from the original novel, this really is an alien planet ruled by apes and not merely a future post-apocalyptic version of Earth. Leo flies back into the storm, the time clock on the screen counts backwards several hundred years, and Leo navigates the pod past Saturn and approaches Earth’s orbit. He crash lands the pod through the reflecting pool in Washington, D.C. and comes to a stop on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, lending credence to the earlier reluctance by the powers that be to let him fly. He jumps out of the smoking, sparking machine and walks inside the stone temple where, to his shock, he is confronted with a statue of General Thade coiffed, dressed, and posed identically to Abraham Lincoln. As cops, firefighters, reporters and onlookers swarm to the crash site, Leo realizes that they are, in fact, all apes.

It’s a bit of a crazy ending which is, like the rest of the film, more than slightly inexplicable. The best answer is that it was a set up for sequels and the explanation is that Thade, or Thade and a group of apes, somehow refurbished a spaceship and piloted it into the storm. They would have arrived on Earth at some point in the past and led a successful ape uprising which was then enshrined where the Lincoln Memorial once was or should have been. It’s absurd for sure, which robs it of much of its shock value, but it certainly is shocking. It’s also surprisingly thematically appropriate given Semos, Leo, Lincoln, and Thade’s apparent roles as emancipators. Unfortunately for this picture it’s the nonsensical cherry on top of a pretty bad movie.

Throughout the 2001 movie, racially charged phrasing from the African American Civil Rights movement is employed. For example, one of the wild humans freed by Leo objects to travelling alongside a “House Human” and Limbo blurts out a few stock phrases like “can’t we all just get along?” when trying to save his own hide from the humans who bested him. This sort of thing feels a little too cute. It turns subtext into text. In the late sixties, a metaphor like The Planet of the Apes was just about the only way to safely tackle controversial contemporary themes without angering the establishment. It’s one of science fiction’s most enduring strengths. In the summer of 2001, however, it must have felt pretty hackneyed.

Tim Burton’s film is first and foremost not a good movie. Covering it in often minute detail has hopefully given readers a glimpse into the film’s inscrutable choices. Of the apes saga so far, this one has the longest running time but nevertheless feels as if it’s missing important moments. Events just seem to happen one after another without the necessary connective propulsion. Traditional plot lubricant like well-defined motivations are sorely absent. The production value is an impressive step up from the successively slashed budgets of the original series and the intervening 30 years of primatology resulted in more realistic depictions of ape behavior and movement but, as stated before, the result is definitely goofy. A well-intentioned but poorly executed film, perhaps an unfortunate result of the extended time the project spent in development hell and an actor and director with mismatched talents.

To read more in this limited, series click the below links for a look at Parts One and Two.

Part One: The Tragedy of Taylor

Part Two: Caesar the Messiah

 

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