Planet of the Apes (2001)


Even people who haven’t seen “Planet of the Apes” know “Planet of the Apes.” I’m talking about the original one, from 1968, with Charlton Heston and “Get your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape!” and so forth. It’s been referenced and parodied so many times in popular culture that I can’t imagine the surprise ending would still be a surprise for anyone.

To remake such a well-known movie was pure sacrilege, of course. Hang around the Internet long enough and you’ll realize that remaking ANY movie is pure sacrilege, because of the way that remakes go back in time and burn all the copies of the originals so you can’t watch them anymore, or something. But there had been so many advancements in makeup and digital effects since 1968 that people were curious to see what an updated POTA would look like. The people who were the most curious were the people at Twentieth Century Fox, who owned the rights to the story and really, really wanted to make some more money with it.

They certainly got their wish! The film had the second-best opening weekend of 2001 (behind the first Harry Potter) and ultimately grossed $362 million worldwide. The reviews were mixed-to-negative — Rotten Tomatoes has it at 45%, though that includes a lot of reviews written long afterward — but so what?

My review was not mixed. It was very, very positive. Gushing, even.

What I said then:

“‘Planet of the Apes’ toys with our expectations. It doesn’t count on our being familiar with the original sci-fi classic … but those who know a little something about [it] will find endless delight in the twisting and remodeling that goes on in the new one…. Mark Wahlberg’s skill at playing quiet, reluctant heroes is now nearly perfect… I can’t think of a better person to have directed this film than Tim Burton. His touch is sly and whimsical…. ‘Planet of the Apes’ takes itself just seriously enough to warrant respect and attention, but not so seriously it chokes on itself…. Burton creates an amazingly believable world…. It is a demented mind indeed that could take a topic with such potential for cheesiness and make it seem so convincing…. The summer blockbuster season just got smarter, cooler and classier.” Grade: A- [complete review]

Man alive, that’s embarrassing. Read the whole review, it’s all like that, just unreservedly effusive and giddy, like I’d just watched the most spectacular film of my life. (And for all that, only an A-minus? I assume the only thing that kept it from getting the full A was that the movie failed to leap from the screen and massage my back while I watched it.)

The re-viewing:

I had a hunch my second viewing, almost exactly 10 years later, would leave me feeling somewhat less enthusiastic. Despite its box-office haul, the film doesn’t seem to have been an enduring classic. Nobody ever talks about it anymore. Roger Ebert wrote in his 2-and-a-half-star review, “Ten years from now, it will be the 1968 version that people are still renting.” It’s been 10 years, and yeah, he was right.

What struck me in 2001 as being “sly and whimsical” and “[taking] itself just seriously enough to warrant respect” struck me in 2011 as being jokey, broad, and goofy. (Jokey, Broad, and Goofy are my three favorite Smurfs, by the way.) A certain amount of humor is inevitable with any primate-based endeavor; you’re going to have lines like “Your monkey launches at 1600!” It’s unavoidable. But the tone in this thing is too campy, almost wacky, like the long-hoped-for musical version from “The Simpsons.” (“I hate every ape I see/From chimpan-A to chimpan-Z!”) There’s an ape grinding an organ while a small human dances around! Another ape says, “Get your stinking hands off me, you damn dirty human!”! Charlton Heston has an uncredited cameo as a dying old ape who speaks out against the evils of guns, har har!

But despite all the silliness, the movie also wants us to take it seriously as an action film. That’s hard to do when every other scene has guys in ape costumes being thrown through the air, as if throwing people through the air were the only summer-blockbuster-action-sequence trick Tim Burton ever learned. Frankly, it just isn’t GOOD enough as an action film to be taken seriously as an action film. Paul Giamatti is really fun to watch as an orangutan who sells humans as pets (slaves?). If the entire movie had that tone — enthusiastically comic, reveling in the absurdity of it all — it might have worked better. Instead it tries to be serious, but all the jokey stuff littering the sidelines clogs our peripheral vision.

And the surprise ending is complete nonsense, obviously. Sure sets up a sequel, though!

Do I still love this movie?

No. NO INDEED. It has great makeup, special effects, and production design, and the pace doesn’t drag much. Other than that, I hereby officially throw my poop at this movie. Grade: C