THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Someone once said: don't remake the good movies, remake the bad ones. The point being that you can't improve on a classic, but you can always improve on a misfire. I'd like to add another provision to that saying. Remake movies that technology can help reinvent. Planet of the Apes is a perfect example of what I'm talking about. While perhaps not on the same level as Citizen Kane or Gone with the Wind, the original remains popular to this day. Special effects wizardry has come a long way, though, since that film was made in 1968. Tim Burton's updated Planet of the Apes uses modern capabilities to make an old idea seem brand new.

Mark Wahlberg plays Leo Davidson, a United States Air Force pilot who specializes in training monkeys to perform flying maneuvers in outer space. When an electrical storm threatens the space station he is working from, Leo's chimp is sent in a probe to investigate. The simian never comes back, so Leo takes off after it. In the process, he crash lands on a strange planet inhabited by apes. The creatures are highly intelligent - they walk and talk, and they have established their own civilization. There are some humans, too, but they are generally hunted by the apes and used as either pets or slaves. Leo hooks up with some of the last few remaining humans - Karubi (Kris Kristofferson) and his daughter Daena (Estella Warren) - to find a way off the planet.

Thade (Tim Roth) tries to stop damn dirty human Mark Wahlberg from escaping the Planet of the Apes
The apes themselves are generally an angry, hostile bunch. Their leader is Thade (Tim Roth), a vicious dictator who has nothing but contempt for humans, whom he views as being two steps down on the evolutionary scale. His right-hand man is Attar (Michael Clarke Duncan), a leader in the simian military. Leo, Karubi, and Daena are captured and brought to Thade and Attar by Limbo (Paul Giamatti), a "trader" who captures and sells humans. While in Thade's custody, Leo is helped by Ari (Helena Bonham Carter), a progressive ape who believes her species can peacefully co-exist with people. She buys freedom for Leo and his companions - an act that ultimately leads to Thade's fury.

There is another plot thread relating to Leo's attempts to escape. He and the others travel to a holy land in which the "first ape" arrived, paving the way for future generations. It is on this sacred ground that Leo must find a way to insure safety for the other humans as well as to launch himself back to Earth.

Watching this new Planet of the Apes movie, several things come to mind. First, it is perhaps not surprising that Burton is more interested in the apes than in the people. (I had to look up the names of the human characters for this review because most of them are never addressed formally in the film.) In some ways, that's a flaw because the better the hero, the more interesting the battle between good and evil will be. On the other hand, I kind of agree with Burton. The bad guys often are more engrossing. Oscar-winning makeup expert Rick Baker has done a superior job of making the actors look like apes. Additionally, the cast was required to attend "Ape School" in order to learn authentic simian movement. It's a touch that adds great texture to the film. Rather than saying things like, "Oh, there's Paul Giamatti in ape makeup," you actually buy into the characters because they look and move realistically.

Another thing worth noticing is that the actors who play apes don't just rely on the makeup; they give full-bodied performances. This is especially true of Tim Roth, who creates one of the most chilling villains to hit the big screen in a long time. His facial expressions and mannerisms suggest a fury waiting to be unleashed. In one scene, he literally goes bananas (no pun intended), leaping around from rock to rock in a burst of maniacal energy. The Oscar committee never takes such performances seriously, but in Roth's case they should. Helena Bonham Carter is also quite effective. This story always was a parable about prejudice, and the actress effectively represents Ari's more liberal way of thinking. She's so good that the flirtation between Ari and Leo is even credible (although with former Sports Illustrated swimsuit model Estella Warren on the planet, one wonders why Leo would bother with the monkey).

Planet of the Apes looks great and has great simian characters, but it works beyond that. What I liked most is that the film is not just about hitting the action beats. Too many summer movies - Jurassic Park III being the most recent example - are content only to pile action scenes on top of one another. The screenplay for this film (written by William Broyles, Jr. and Lawrence Konner & Mark Rosenthal) contains issues of politics, religion, and social equality. The humans may be almost inconsequential, but the simian world the writers have created is fascinating in the ways it mirrors our own. The best scenes are the ones where the ape characters are simply shown running their civilization.

By this, I don't mean to imply that the action scenes are dull. They are not. Burton is a genius when it comes to making such moments off-center and unique. Take, for instance, the battle scenes, in which humans try to outrun the apes, which are able to run on all fours and fly through the trees. You need to see it to understand the effect but trust me when I say it looks phenomenal. The grand finale of Planet of the Apes is a thrilling combination of primal ape action and two mind-bending plot twists that will have you discussing the movie afterward.

A major component of the movie's success is the way it uses new technology to make the story more credible. The characters look and feel like apes. The way they move is authentic, adding richness to the world they inhabit. The FX team here deserves kudos for bringing the planet so vividly to life. Burton must also get credit for knowing how to use that technology in service of entertainment. The argument can be made that there are too many plot holes, too many human characters who fade into the background, etc. But I think there's something more at work here. As a piece of pure entertainment, Planet of the Apes delivers on a grand scale. In the tradition of Independence Day, Twister, and the original Jurassic Park, it is a great Summer Movie.

( 1/2 out of four)

Planet of the Apes is rated PG-13 for some sequences of action/violence. The running time is 1 hour and 50 minutes.
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