2001's "Planet of the Apes" Will Always Be My Favorite of the Franchise
2001's Planet of the Apes was a science fiction film based on the original classic film of the same name and also based on the book of the same name by Pierre Boulle. It was the first reboot to the film franchise, was directed by Tim Burton, and starred such greats as Helena Bonham Carter, Micheal Clarke Duncan, Tim Roth, and Paul Giamatti.
It sounds like blasphemy, I know, but Tim Burton's take on the Planet of the Apes franchise will probably always be my favorite, even over the classics. I feel it was seriously underrated and deserved more applause for its creativity, its story, and its depiction of ape society.
This is coming from someone who grew up gleefully watching the original classic films with Charlton Heston, Roddy McDowall, and Kim Hunter. As a nerd from the womb, I have many happy memories of watching the classics on tv, my all-time favorites being Planet of the Apes, Escape from the Planet of the Apes, and Conquest of the Planet of the Apes.
As I grew up, however, it became more difficult to watch the classics once I began to understand that they were little more than the feverish nightmares of racists who were afraid of black people coming into power.
Using apes as an allegory for black people will never not be racist.
It also became difficult to keep looking at the films considering how sexist the first one was. Between the only female crewmate, Stewart, being referred to as a sex object by Taylor and Nova's depiction as an ever silent and yet ever sexy cavewoman with her boobs hanging out, I just couldn't deal. I had to stop looking at the first film.
Sometimes I still look at my other favorites, such as "Escape" or "Conquest," but the racism allegory still bothers me.
I'm too old to tolerate this shit from my entertainment anymore.
You're probably wondering why I don't enjoy the 2011 reboot of the franchise. I mean, it was more about animal rights and less about racism, which was nice. But I disliked it for several reasons.
The first reason? I thought it was boring.
The second reason? I kind of hate CGI. Having grown up in the 80s where people actually wore costumes, I would rather see actors in monkey suits every time. The CGI kills the movie for me.
The third reason? I just couldn't get into the story. The Planet of the Apes franchise has a peculiar habit of signing male leads who can't act or just don't draw the audience in much. Charlton Heston, Mark Wahlberg, and James Franco were the male leads across the franchise, but they weren't charismatic enough to make anyone give a shit about their characters.
Charlton was easily the most -- erm -- "talented" of the three, but even he couldn't make anyone care about Taylor. Part of it was probably the fact that he hated making the Planet of the Apes films and got out as soon as he could by begging to have his character killed: his heart wasn't in it.
With all this in mind, I recently came to the conclusion that Tim Burton's take on the franchise is actually my favorite.
Again, I really, really do not like like CGI. In fact, most of the movies I review here do not use it or else don't rely on it heavily (meaning they are at least thirty to twenty years old).
To be clear, I don't hate CGI in general. I hate bad CGI. Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings franchise, for instance, did CGI well with characters like Gollum or the ents or beautiful scenes such as Galadriel's temptation in the first film (Come on! It was good for its time!). It's just that sometimes filmmakers go overboard with CGI, and if it doesn't look real enough, it can get really annoying.
I've never seen CGI pull off realistic animals, so you can imagine why I would be against using it in a Planet of the Apes film.
Apparently, Tim Burton once shared my tastes, because he insisted that the actors wear prosthetic makeup and that the movie not rely on CGI.
The end result was an amazing aesthetic, a beautiful fantasy world where the ape people actually looked like ape people and not cartoony images.
Unfortunately, Tim Burton fell victim to the overuse of CGI later in his career with films like Disney's live action remake of Dumbo.
I will always appreciate how amazing the makeup was in this film. For the longest time, I didn't even realize Helena Bonham Carter was Ari or that Tim Roth was General Thade. They embodied their characters so well that I just saw the makeup -- the characters -- and not them.
No Problematic Sh*t
There was no problematic shit. Meaning, I didn't have to wait tensely for the narrative to do something racist or sexist or colorist or homophobic. The nice thing about Tim Burton films is that he can entertain people without being a dick.
Like take the fact that there were no racist attributes assigned to the apes based on skin color. I always hated how the dark skin gorillas in the original classic films were depicted as especially violent and dumb because they were dark while the chimpanzees and the orangutans were depicted as peaceful and more intelligent because they had lighter skin.
Amazing that, on top of being sexist and racist, the original films were colorist as well.
In real life, gorillas are actually the gentle, peaceful ones while chimpanzees have been known to wage actual "tribal" wars on each other -- usually the males competing for female attention.
Tim Burton's film has none of that. Attributes were not distributed to the apes based on skin color but based on their individual personalities. Ari, a chimpanzee, was kind and cared about social progress, while General Thade -- another chimpanzee -- was conservative, cruel, and her exact opposite.
Meanwhile, not all the orangutans were the same. In the original classics, they were all presented with the exact same characteristics, but in Tim Burton's film, they have more nuance. Senator Nado (Glenn Shadix), for instance, is wildly different from Limbo (Paul Giamatti), a slave trader.
And General Krull (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), a disgraced gorilla soldier, is the opposite -- even the enemy of -- Colonel Attar (Micheal Clarke Duncan), a deeply religious gorilla soldier.
In other words, the apes were not assigned personality based on species (in a narrow-minded, stereotypical, or bigoted way). They were allowed to be good and bad, smart and dumb, cynical or deeply spiritual.
The apes were allowed to be individuals.
And lastly, I loved the story.
I know that sounds odd to hear given that the story of 2001's Planet of the Apes is probably the weakest part of it, but I actually enjoyed it greatly -- mostly because it was a concise, one-package deal that neatly wrapped itself up.
I loved how the film explored ape society, religion, politics, and culture. I loved the great care given to their architecture and the beautiful rain forest aesthetic. When looking at the film, it's obvious a lot of thought went into that, and I appreciate it. I suppose it has to do with the fact that I'm a writer and a gamer nerd, so I appreciate good world building in a fictional setting.
I'm also pretty big on movies about time travel, and the leading male character, Leo (Mark Wahlberg), travels through time, trying to save his monkey, Pericles. When his ship, the Oberon, tries to follow and save him, they become stranded on the planet Ashlar, where the apes escape the lab and take over.
In other words, Leo was the cause of his own misery (and somehow, I love that).
This is a theme that is repeated throughout the film. Everything Leo does -- every stupid mistake -- brings suffering upon him and anyone who gets involved with him. Other humans follow him because they think he's some kind of savoir, when in reality, all he does is get them killed -- just as he got their ancestors, the crew of the Oberon, killed.
Leo is a damn curse on everyone. He is not a hero, and yet, everyone else insists on seeing him as one. Both the female leads, the chimpanzee, Ari (Helena Bonham Carter), and the human slave, Daena (Estella Warren), are in love with Leo (for some unfathomable reason).
Leo rejects the affections of everyone. He awkwardly avoids Ari's flirting, avoids Daena, tells the other humans to stop following him, and seems determined to just get back to the Oberon and to hell with everything. By the end of the film, once he discovers that everything is his fault, he's still determined to try going back in time -- as if this would undo the paradox (That never works. Clearly, Leo is not a science fiction fan).
Instead, he winds up moving forward in time.
Here's my take on the ending.
Leo went forward in time and wound up on Earth, only to discover Thade had arrived there before him and his family had taken over. The inscription behind the Thade statue says that he "saved the planet" for the apes -- meaning, he not only freed the apes of Earth (which has racist connotations given the obvious Abe Lincoln comparison -- but still less racist than the classics) but also ruined the ape-human alliance that Leo managed to secure on Ashlar.
So essentially, what Leo did by impulsively rushing off to "save his monkey" in the opening of the film was not something he could undo just by going back through the time warp. The time warp could only take him one way -- forward.
The first time Leo entered it, it carried him forward through time, showing him the result of the Oberon having pursued him to Ashlar. When he entered the time warp a second time, it sent him forward again, showing him the end result of him having left Thade alive. Had Leo stayed behind as Ari suggested, perhaps Thade wouldn't have succeeded in using human technology to take over both Ashlar and Earth.
Leo is a screw up, start to finish. It would have been interesting to see how his character dealt with the consequences of his impulsive actions in a sequel, but I can honestly say I'm grateful this reboot did not spin off into a bunch of sequels like the 2011 one did.
First, Mark Wahlberg can't act. He spends most of the film looking confused, angry, or some variation of the two, but never comes close to doing anything that can be remotely called acting. If it wasn't for the unquestionable talents of Helena Bonham Carter and Tim Roth, this movie would have been sunk.
So a sequel would only have worked without Mark Wahlberg. But given the franchise's penchant for casting talentless male leads, I doubt it would have mattered who they chose to play Leo.
In the end, the lack of sequels was a mercy. Yes, the story was weak, and even Tim Burton says the ending was supposed to be confusing and ambiguous, but I still enjoyed the film immensely for what it was.
For me, that's all that matters.
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