Planet of the Apes


This monkey doesn't quite shine, but the new Planet of the Apes is better than early critical reaction suggests. Fox's original Planet, which starred Charlton Heston and Kim Hunter, was just that--highly original and full of surprises and conviction. Tim Burton's rendering, which is surprisingly devoid of quirky and inventive visual dazzle, hews closely to the spirit of its legendary cinematic ancestor. Harnessing the potent commercial power of sci-fi and time travel, the current Planet delivers a very digestible package of action adventure, with a prototypical hero facing incredible obstacles.

Burton's Planet kicks off in 2029, as Leo Davidson (Mark Wahlberg), an Air Force captain stationed in outer space, defies his boss, hops into his little space vehicle and goes after a lab chimp named Pericles whose pod has been swept into an electromagnetic storm. Leo, too, encounters trouble in his spacecraft. In a gripping sequence, he eventually crash-lands on an unknown planet where evolution has turned the tables on humans and apes rule.

This planet's apes treat their humans the way today's animal-rights activists wish humans did not treat animals. In fact, apes, as imagined by writer and moralist Pierre Boulle, have inherited the very worst of human instincts. Thus, Leo encounters Limbo (Paul Giamatti), a greedy slave trader who also provides the film with a dose of humor; Attar (Michael Clarke Duncan), a soldier who likes a good fight; and Thade (Tim Roth), the totally villainous and scheming military leader who becomes Leo's nemesis.

Of course, like humans, the apes aren't all bad. Helena Bonham Carter is Ari, an activist ape appalled by human mistreatment, who joins forces with Leo and helps liberate him and a small band of humans. She also is part of the ragtag troupe that journeys to find Leo's lost spaceship and its promise of escape. Ari's father Sandar (David Warner) is the planet's venerable senator, an otherwise good gorilla but too easily manipulated by evil forces, notably Thade, that surround him.

Charlton Heston, who had the Wahlberg role in the original film, here has an uncredited cameo role as Thade's father. The filmmakers' idea of snarky irony is to have the old man introduce his son to a gun, an invention unknown to younger ape generations but certainly known to NRA spokesman Heston.

Leo's adventure on the planet, which ends with a mighty battle worthy of Gladiator and a final confrontation with Thade that ends predictably, never sags. And Rick Baker's makeup magic and the choice of fine locations in Hawaii and Arizona deliver credible apes in captivating environments.

One of the weaknesses of Burton's film is Wahlberg as hero. He's bland without the comfort level or presence of a Harrison Ford. Also, the film's coda at a famous East Coast monument tries to, er, ape the brilliance of the original film's surprising location-based finale. But it's lame, a big puzzler. Still, this latest incarnation of the robust franchise is more entertaining and intelligent than several of the summer's other tentpoles.

--Doris Toumarkine