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I have a personal announcement to make: I think I hate Tim Burton. I’ve never really thought much of his films, but I’ve never really felt much animosity towards them. Say what you will about the guy, but he executes on a specific vision that isn’t shared by his contemporaries. Succeed or fail, I thought, he’s no workaday hack. I thought. I thought.
Now, listen, I’m not typically interested in writing venomous, polemical film criticism. It’s just not my style. I don’t even tend to bother with films anymore unless I expect to get something out of them (or unless a family member drags me to them). So when you read this, don’t think of me as the kind of critic who takes pleasure in wailing and the gnashing of teeth. I’m just not that person.
That being said. Deep breath now. That being said…
Burton’s 2001 remake of Planet of the Apes is atrocious. It’s emblematic of the problem with so many of his films — a series of vague visual ideas connected by absolutely nothing. There’s hardly any continuity in this film. Characters appear in different places between scenes with no clear idea of how they got there or how locations fit together. The world of Planet of the Apes is just a collection of sets, floating in an editing void. The film has no setting. It’s just sort of the idea of a setting, loose pieces of concept art stapled together out of order. This film is called Planet of the Apes. But it doesn’t feel like a planet at all.
And isn’t that reminiscent of almost every Burton film? He seems to come up with striking (to be generous) images in his mind and then fail to do the work of placing them in any context.
The only way to make sense of Planet of the Apes is if you’re at least aware of the story of the original. Burton abuses audience familiarity with the 60s version. It’s not just the copious references to that film, it’s the sophomoric way in which Burton presents them. Mark Wahlberg’s protagonist grabs the ankle of an ape only to be told, “Keep your filthy hands off me, you damn dirty human!” Charlton Heston pops up as an ape named Zaius (???) and gets to repeat his iconic “Damn them all to hell!” line. And then there’s the ending, which we’ll get to in a bit. Burton inverts all these callbacks as a way of excusing how lazy his remake is, as if to say, “See, it’s different from the original! See, we’re doing something new with this material!” It’s meant to activate the audience’s memories of the original and make them feel good for recognizing the reference. It’s the standard on which most modern mainstream cinema operates. In this way, I suppose, Planet of the Apes was ahead of its time.
The main way Burton’s remake leans on its predecessor is in the deployment of the twist. The original ended with the reveal that the titular planet was actually Earth all along, and that the hero had travelled not somewhere in space but far forward in time. In the remake, the planet is just a random uninhabited planet, where the hero’s space station crashed after he disappeared into a wormhole. The ape and human inhabitants of the station populated the planet, the apes became more advanced, and eventually they took over. The remake’s twist is deployed about halfway through, which feels like an acknowledgement that everyone goes into this film already knowing the truth. I do appreciate that they didn’t try to play it as an actual surprise.
But this film has a final twist of its own. Wahlberg escapes the planet in his space pod and flies back through the wormhole, only to arrive on a modern-day Earth ruled by, you guessed it, apes. When I saw this ending, I spit out my gum in shock that they actually tried to have it both ways. It’s only there as a visual callback to the original ending. It’s only there to remind you that the original exists, and that you like it. The cast of the film has publicly admitted that they can’t make sense of this ending, and neither can I. Burton has said that he intended to just figure out what it meant in the sequel, which was never made. Again we see him predict the model of contemporary blockbusters. If released today, this ending would probably have been a post-credits scene. There would’ve been an Apes Cinematic Universe, and Paul Giamatti’s nebbish and vaguely Jewish slaver character would’ve gotten his own solo film. We were at least spared this tragic fate. Planet of the Apes is a film out of time, but I’m glad it’s in the past where it belongs.