Being in the midst of industrial-scale book promotion, I'm in hotel rooms watching more TV than usual. The other morning, I zapped from a news report showing mobs rampaging through London to a movie channel featuring Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes. The de-evolutionary scenes from Britain looked like they'd make a much more interesting movie. At any rate, continuing our futuristic visions theme from last week, here's my take on a great novel, a classic film moment, and a surprisingly enduring cinematic franchise:
Pierre Boulle's original 1963 French novel of The Planet of the Apes is a space-age Swiftian satire, and so vivid and detailed you never want to see any movie version of it ever. Wisely, Franklin J. Schaffner's 1968 film discarded pretty much everything but the basic premise - on the evolutionary ladder, apes are up, man is down - and then plugged it into the moment, tying together all the threads of the era - civil rights, the space age, societal self-doubt, and nuclear angst - into one of the few truly great sci-fi pictures.
Indeed, if you want the short version of where Hollywood went wrong consider a famous Charlton Heston line and its reprise a third of a century later. 'Take your stinkin' paws off me, you damn dirty ape!' snarls astronaut George Taylor in Schaffner's Planet. In Tim Burton's 2001 remake, the line goes to one of the simians: 'Take your stinkin' hands off me, you damn dirty human!' sneers an ape. In 1968, the 'damn dirty' business was primal, the moment when Heston's character announces to the audience he's mad as hell and he's not gonna take it any more. The simian echo 33 years later is an amusing jest in a film that's too knowing ever really to mean what it's doing. Instead of Heston, the shipwrecked astronaut is Mark Wahlberg, who wanders through the movie with Candide-like passivity. Make all the snooty critic's jokes you want about Chuck's two facial expressions - clenched and unclenched - but he enlarged the role. In that terrific final image, when he drops to the sand before the shattered Statue of Liberty and wails in realization of what's happened and where he is, you appreciate his iconic indispensability. He was, as otherwise unsympathetic reviewers would concede, a long, lean, slim-hipped action hero with beautiful aquiline cheekbones, the American eagle in the gallery of national archetypes. But in Planet of the Apes, running around in his loincloth, he conjured Commander Taylor as Adam - the last man on earth played as the first man on earth. And that ending is a marvel of boldness, crudeness and profound bleakness. If you're looking for lessons in the art of adaptation, Schaffner's film is an excellent example of how to liberate yourself from the source material.
In Tim Burton's alleged 'reimagining' of 2001, once again a human spaceship - a sort of giant Philips Ladyshave - crash-lands on a strange planet; once again an all-American hero confronts a world turned upside down - where the apes are the masters, and humans are slaves, pets or scavengers. When you remake a familiar landmark, you first have to get past it - either leaping way beyond, or at least adroitly sidestepping. Burton's strategy is to position himself midway between the Schaffner and Boulle versions: he knows the 1968 ending can't shock second time around, so he goes back to the novel (sort of); he also incorporates elements of the book's elaborate simian class structure; on the other hand, Heston himself is on hand, as an elderly ape warning of the dangers posed by man's deadliest invention - the gun. This is, ha-ha, a play on Heston's then current incarnation as president of the National Rifle Association and thus spokesman for America's gun lobby.
If you like sly in-jokes, Burton's Planet is full of such touches - the aged simian senator with the trophy wife who's having a 'bad hair day', satirical references to the planet's 'human rights' lobby, dialogue that apes famous humans ('Extremism in defence of apes is no vice'). But the more lovely touches pile up, the more you look in vain for the big canvas. The reallocation of the 'damn dirty' line is amusing for cineastes but also a good example of how films have changed in the last three decades. How I wish that lame British taunt that Americans have no sense of irony were true. This film wears its irony like a condom, terrified that any real juice might shoot through the screen.
There's nothing primal about this battle of the primates. Even in his more wooden moments, Heston has a majestic, righteous hamminess, epic enough on which to hang the fate of a species. Wahlberg, by contrast, is small and hammy. When all else fails, Heston, running around in a loincloth for most of the movie, projects an awesome virility. Declining the loincloth, Wahlberg winds up a blank, neither a human individual nor a blazing archetype.
On the distaff side, curvy Canadian cutie Estella Warren comes off even worse. Most of her dialogue seems to have got lost on the cutting-room floor, so that she spends the entire picture trailing along after Wahlberg shooting meaningful glances - either winsome or pouty. In another example of Burtonian homage, she wears the prehistoric animal-skin mini-dress pioneered in the Sixties by Raquel Welch and Wilma Flintstone, though, in another example of Burtonian halfheartedness, with far less cleavage than Raquel. In any case, the real love interest is Ari, an ape who's a 'human rights' activist and finds herself strangely drawn to Wahlberg. Ari is played by Helena Bonham-Carter under the stiffest facial make-up in the movie, yet she nevertheless projects more humanity than any of the humans. Unfortunately, Tim Burton's trademark sexlessness is as reliable as ever: the possibility of interspecies miscegenation is just another of those little touches, to be picked up and almost immediately discarded.
Still, when all else fails, there's a terrific scenery-chewing performance from Tim Roth as General Thade, the king of the swingers, the jungle VIP. He's a chimp, a pint-sized ape with a Napoleon complex, and his body language is the most eloquent thing in the movie, whether he's bouncing around the room like a guy in a padded cell or sidling up to his ape generals' armpits like Groucho to Margaret Dumont. Burton lavished an extraordinary amount of care and money on the apes of Roth, foolishly assuming the humans could look after themselves. He didn't pay peanuts, but he wound up with monkeys. And, although the film shamelessly sets up the sequel, it reminds me of the 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers - twice as lavish, twice as long as the original, perfectly respectable but ultimately no threat.