The latest incantation of “Planet of the Apes,” says director Tim Burton, is neither a sequel nor a remake of the classic films that spanned the 1960s and 70s yet some of the new film”s greatest flaws lie in its adherence to the original”s pop-political commentary. The original was a nice satire that materialized out of a popcorn movie, while Burton”s film is an attempt at a social satire that is simply the most entertaining popcorn movie of the summer. The set-up, with enslaved humans (considered soulless by their simian captors) beaten and mistreated, could simply stand as itself, as is often the case is brainless summer entertainment, or more fully explored to stay true to its premise.
The real reason most people will (presumably) flock to see “POTA,” though, is the unique visuals (by production designer and long-time Burton collaborator Rick Heinrichs) and the peerless make-up effects by Academy Award winner Rick Baker. Most people will not be disappointed.
The Ape world melds primitive and modern, calling to mind the Ewok village from “The Return of the Jedi,” re-imagined with darker hues, more characters and the occasional infamous Burton arch. The film is not as richly stylized as some of Burton”s other efforts, such as “Sleepy Hollow” or “Batman,” yet the more earthy tones and starker sets allows the audience to believe this world may actually exist.
The makeup has been specially designed for each actor, fully integrating their unique visages with the distinct look of each ape. Tim Roth”s villainous General Thade is the most complete meld of actor and costume, creating the most shocking, realistic creature in the film.
The plot is unimportant to a film such as this, serving merely as a way of gliding from one magnificent set piece to the next. In a fairly uninteresting prologue with shades of “Project X,” Captain Leo Davidson (Mark Wahlberg) teaches his monkey Pericles how to fly a surveillance vehicle safely from a space-station in the not-too-distant future. After the monkey disappears in a temporal disturbance of some sort, Davidson takes off after him, crashing on a planet inhabited by … Okay, you get the idea. The planet is run by a Senate that cowers to the malevolent presence of Thade, who is believed to be in the direct line of their savior, Simos (The ape Jesus, if you will). Davidson escapes enslavement with the help of bleeding-heart chimpanzee Ari (Helena Bonham Carter) and her ape-servant Krull (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa). Chaos ensues.
Wahlberg is a blank, dumb, American stereotype who is insulted by the apes presumption of running an entire planet. Roth pulls out all the stops from “Supervillians 101” as the snarling Thade, yet is so impressive in force of personality and movement that his hamboning can be forgiven. Other Apes include Michael Clark Duncan as Thade”s number one guy, and Paul Giamatti as humorously corrupt human-trader. Estella Warren and Kris Kristofferson play fellow slaves written in mostly to look hot and take up space, respectively.
Ultimately, in a summer that has given us both “Tomb Raider” and “Jurassic Park 3” and passed them off as big entertainment, “POTA” is a major success. As a creative effort from one of Hollywood”s most creative mainstream filmmakers, it is only marginally so.