Remaking Bad: Planet of the Apes (2001)

Though I argued in my first post that collective fandom should make (some) room for remakes, I should make it clear that just because I’m generally okay with remakes as a category, that doesn’t mean all remakes are created equal.

Case in point: the Tim Burton remake of Planet of the Apes from 2001. We’ll hit the reboot series in a future post, in an effort to keep these things only mildly TL;DR, and also to point out that some remakes are more equal than others.

With Planet of the Apes, we have a special case when it comes to remakes: the readaptation, or at least the potential for one. The original film is adapted from Pierre Boulle’s awesome novel La Planète des Singes, sometimes translated Monkey Planet, a title I find pretty hilarious. It’s a terrific read, and since I’ll be spoiling major plot points in this post, if you were planning to read it, I’m encouraging you to pick it up before continuing to read this post.

Ask anyone what the major defect in any given adapted film is, and you’ll likely hear, “They cut too much out of the book.” Of course, most folks acknowledge that moving from a book that might take you ten hours to read into a film that might run under two hours, the screenwriters have to make decisions about what stays and what goes. This trimming, by its very nature, leaves room for remakes. It’s just a question of if the remake actually squeezes itself in there effectively.

One of the key points in favor of the original film is that the screenwriters wisely dumped the weakest portion of the book: the chapter in which the mechanics behind the apes’ rise to power are explained. The explanation just doesn’t hold up or work in any way other than as an artifact of 1960s science fiction writing. Perhaps the writers knew this and ditched it. More likely, they realized that the “how” of it wasn’t the point of the story.

It’s noteworthy that the sequel films, chiefly Escape From the Planet of the Apes and Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, do actually delve into the in-canon (movie canon) explanation for the rise of the intelligent ape. Now, I love all the original films, but I still don’t totally buy their version of events. (In fact, it’s an ontological paradox based on Caesar being born to intelligent apes from the future. I’m fine with timey-wimey stuff to a certain point, but it doesn’t make a very satisfying explainer.)

So here you had an original film (and film series) with a somewhat unsatisfactory way of justifying apes rising to power on Earth. Call that the Story Defect category of Remake Room.

But there’s another critical bit that the original film changed from the book. (Spoilers ahead) In the book, the bulk of the action takes place on an alien planet. The Statue of Liberty reveal in the original film is not taken from the book. It’s an example of an amazing innovation and one of the greatest movie twists of all time. (Incidentally, the action does return to Earth in the book, and this movie ham-handedly references that.)

So when it comes to answering the key question (Was there room for this remake?), we have a solid yes on a couple of counts:  Correcting the deficiencies in the story of the apes’ rise to power, and bringing back the alien planet setting.

Another bit of room is the fact that the ape effects, though state of the art at the time, don’t hold up particularly well. Practical effects may age better than CG, but they still age. Call it the Technological Defect category of Remake Room.

So, all that being said, how does this film score on my (admittedly arbitrary) criteria for judging a remake?  If you read my intro post (and you totally did), you’ll remember I’m looking for these three things:

  • Break new ground
  • Pay homage, but don’t go overboard
  • Make a good film.

Let’s take them one by one.

The ground was broken. Badly broken.

It’s pretty clear what this film was going for: updating the ape effects with stunning practical makeup, and retelling the intelligent ape origin story (and on an alien planet!).

They got it half right. The makeup is almost universally stellar. The only real hiccup here is that they somehow ended up with Helena Bonham Carter playing a pivotal role but sounding like she was gargling marbles the whole time. (This kind of thing is fixable with ADR!) But the performances of Tim Roth and Michael Clarke Duncan more than balance that particular equation. Too bad the effects weren’t good enough to make Mark Walhberg seem convincingly alive.

The other half of their concept was to reimagine how the intelligent apes came to be. Something about a time warp in space, a ship filled with enhanced (I guess, though the film doesn’t really say) apes crashing on a moon or planet, resulting in Earth being taken over by apes by the end of the film. Somehow.

Credit where it’s due: they broke a good deal of new ground here. The ape city on the planet is really cool. The idea of the ship becoming a sacred place makes some sense. And having the apes take over Earth by the end actually works for me. Well, kind of. It’s a nod to the book, and as such I appreciated it. But you have to do some mental gymnastics to make sense of it. Here’s my attempt:

We already know that the weird space storm thingy causes displacement in time, with Marky Mark and his favorite ape getting separated by perhaps thousands of years from the crashing ship. So there’s nothing to say that the Tim Roth character couldn’t have gotten in a pod (presumably there was one still on the crashed ship) and hit the space anomaly, which spit him out again hundreds of years before Wahlberg, essentially recreating the events of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. (I guess piloting those pods must be super easy.)

Like I said, as a nod to the book I’m fine with it, but it completely goes over the head (and rings the WTF-o-Meter) of the casual fan. So that brings up the line between good and bad references.

Nods gone bad.

This movie barely nods to the original. Yes, there are the two direct dialogue references: “Damn, dirty humans” and “Damn them all to Hell,” but they stretch the limits of good nods pretty hard, and I’m not sure how I feel about them.

The “Damn, dirty ape” line came at a critical point in the original film, as Taylor finally proved he could speak. Here it exists solely as a reference with none of the emotional weight of the original. The “Damn them all to Hell” line is, of course, the final line of the original film, beautifully overacted by Charleton Heston, who also delivers it in the remake, albeit into a different context but still addressing humans. But since he’s decrying the humans’ warlike tendencies, I’m more willing to credit this one as a good reference.

(A subtler nod is that Heston’s character, though he’s uncredited, is evidently named Zaius, a nice nod to the primary antagonist from the original film.)

Sometimes the trouble with nods is the lack of them. The biggest missed opportunity here was when Marky Mark (whose character should’ve been named Taylor, incidentally) kisses the Michael-Jackson-lookalike of Helena Bonham Carter’s character. Golden opportunity here for her to tell him, “It’s just that you’re so damned ugly.”

Maybe the main problem here is that the nods felt obligatory rather than growing up organically from the story being told. Speaking of which…

The only problem with your story is the distinct lack of story!

This brings me to the last point. It’s not a good film. Oh, it’s perfectly entertaining as a dumb summer action film, but the original set the bar pretty high, bringing in some philosophical musings about the nature of man, warning that our tendency to mistreat each other could ultimately lead us all to our doom.

Maybe it was the thing to do at the time, but why have a climactic battle between humans and apes? Why could the humans talk? And if they were obviously intelligent, reasoning creatures, how did the ape society justify oppressing them so? (Maybe it was aiming at a deeper point, since it’s not like human history lacks this kind of oppression, but at least in the original, the humans seemed like dumb animals.) And for the love of God, where did the horses come from? Were they on the ship, or did horses evolve on this planet?

But of course the biggest single issue here was the lack of a compelling protagonist. Mark Walhberg is a fine actor, and it’s true he didn’t have much to work with, but did anyone in the audience ever care a whit for him? His being human on a, wait for it, planet of apes, wasn’t enough to get us on his side, because he was an empty (though muscular) suit.

The frustrating thing here is the wasted potential. The updated ape effects aren’t enough without a compelling story to drop them into. It’s no wonder this film measures exactly half (45% to 90%) the Tomatometer score of the original.

So yeah, there was some Remake Room here, but this film didn’t do a great job of filling it. Next time I’ll take a look at the reboot franchise that set its sights both higher and lower, starting with Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

Anybody out there a fan of this particular remake? Fans of the book? Feel free to weigh in here.

 


Seth Heasley is co-host of Take Me To Your Reader, a podcast covering adapted science fiction. You may be interested to hear their episode covering Planet of the Apes.

2 comments on Remaking Bad: Planet of the Apes (2001)

  1. Jeffry Palermo says:

    Excellent Job, Seth. Could not agree more about the turd that was Burton’s remake. Two words: Ape Lincoln.

    So much wrong with this film, Marky Mark casting, Tim Roth’s aggro character choices, the story was nonexistent, and the time travel element was horribly employed. All in all, a film well forgotten by most.

    1. Seth Heasley says:

      Yeah, I liked that reveal, but it’s only because I recognized it as a nod to the book. But it’s too inside baseball to really work.

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