Tim Burton monkeys around with the cult classic "Planet of the Apes." 

Primal Screen

You know, it must have sounded absolutely mouthwatering on paper, pairing the movie-magic mastery of Tim Burton with the classic "Planet of the Apes." But the reality, now showing on an unprecedented 4,000 screens across America, turns out to be something of a mismatch. Lacking energy or synergy, this "re-imagining" of Pierre Boulle's novel "Monkey Planet" holds us in its thrall only rarely.

Even the cheesy 1968 original accomplished that and a great deal more, including stooping to gratuitous snicker-inducing shots of Charlton Heston in a loincloth. By comparison, Burton's "Planet" isn't very exciting or very imaginative, especially for the man behind movies such as "Ed Wood" and "Edward Scissorhands." The movie is Burton's most conventional and literal-minded, nearly devoid of his trademark poetic weirdness or infectious flights of fancy.

With the mounting technical advances in computer-generated images, animatronics and even actors, a "revisit" of "Planet of the Apes" seemed justifiable. And there was certainly room for an edgier, darker turning-of-the-tables on Darwin's presumed favorite species — man. Sadly, Burton's vision of the Simian-ruled planet only hints at these cutting-edge advances. As for the scripting, it remains obvious and predictable, hitting tiresome topical notes that evoke a few snorts of recognition from viewers but no real shock or laughter.

Not that the movie's opening doesn't suck us in. There's Mark Wahlberg as Capt. Leo Davidson, stuck on a humongous U.S. space station in the year 2029, concentrating on turning chimps into space-age flyboys. When his favorite student is lost in an electromagnetic storm, Leo ignores orders and takes off "to get my chimp!" Leo, of course, gets caught in a time warp and plummets onto a tropical forest on a planet where man is the all-purpose species of burden.

The film eschews the ominous cat-and-mouse game of earlier "Apes" movies, and we know almost immediately who the enemy is in this new version. We watch as some soldier apes round up a scraggly band of humans and take them to market in Ape City.

The sets are unlike the incredible ones created for Burton's other movies, and he seems to be suffering from agoraphobia, unsure of just what to make of or do with Rich Heinrich's enormous and visually unstylized set. Muddled, unexciting action scenes follow in which the lovely Daena (Estella Warren) and a few others secretly freed by the caring ape-senator's daughter Ari (Helena Bonham Carter) put their hopes of a better future in Leo's hands. Enraged by this betrayal and the humans' escape, villainous military leader Thade (Tim Roth) convinces Ari's father to declare martial law so he can lead a massive search-and-destroy mission. Thade's particular bent would be to rid the planet of the human species altogether, but without slave labor who would perform those necessary but menial tasks?

This, of course, sets the stage for the climatic confrontation between the mightier apes and the ill-prepared humans, led by Wahlberg's unwilling savior. The inevitable is interrupted by a precious but hardly surprising "celestial" visitor. But Burton isn't satisfied shooting himself in the foot just once. Besides the cute climax, he also tries to revive the same shocking fell of the original ending, by aping the inclusion of a well-known U.S. landmark. But the icon chosen is, well, let's just say it's really, really bad. So bad, it almost succeeds in making you forget the deathbed scene featuring the uncredited Charlton Heston (in full aging ape attire) as Thade's father, who passes along to him a lesson in Darwinism as well as an ancient weapon — a gun.

Though campy and cheap-looking, the original was serious in its intent to showcase Bouelle's allegory of race relations, religious intolerance and basic inhumanity. By contrast, Burton's is lavishly and elegantly shot, apparently sparing no expense for setting, costume or special effect. It's also quite clear that Burton wanted to have some fun, hence the Heston-as-an-ape cameo or a scene featuring black leather-clad apes gathered around a bong.

The actors have limited success as well, although oddly, those stuck in the tons of prosthetics, wigs and dental pieces fare better than those playing humans. Wahlberg is fine as the earnest Captain, but poor Warren struggles with her dialogue, seemly trapped by her ragged leather miniskirt and radiantly streaked hair. (Fans of the original will no doubt wistfully recall that actress Linda Harrison and that role had no lines at all.) Among the apes, Carter is a marvel, showing us femininity as well as compassion and intelligence behind her Simian bob. Roth commands the screen as the evil Thade, but at times his speech seems impaired by the prosthetics.

So what exactly is the point to the re-imagined "Planet of the Apes?" Other than a studio's hopes to create a mega summer blockbuster, that is? I'm not really sure. Burton's "Planet" may be stuffed with beauty shots and grand-scale lines of loping apes, but it's missing that one element that separates man from beast — soul.

popcorn popcorn

Movies are rated out of a possible 5 popcorns.


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