Like the original, the movie's theme is one of racial tolerance and understanding.
By MILAN PAURICH
You could practically hear a collective sigh of relief at the conclusion of a recent "Planet of the Apes" press screening. At last, a summer "event" movie that delivers the goods!
Although Tim Burton's "reimagining" of the 1968 baby boomer benchmark didn't fulfill all of my expectations -- it's more solid commercial entertainment than a visionary Burton masterpiece along the lines of the director's "Edward Scissorhands" or "Batman Returns" -- I can't think of many other recent films worth talking -- and even arguing -- about as much as this one.
And, unlike commercial underachievers "A.I." and "Moulin Rouge," the most hotly debated of this season's movies until now, "Apes" is almost certain to rule at the box office until Labor Day.
The premise: After 15 minutes of time-killing exposition during which Air Force Capt. Leo Davidson (Mark Wahlberg) ejects himself into orbit to retrieve a government-experiment chimp that strayed off course, the action begins in earnest.
Moments after crash landing, Davidson is surrounded by a scraggly bunch of humans on the run from a feral army of militant apes. With its terrifying flying monkeys straight out of "The Wizard of Oz," this dazzling sequence shows Burton at his most playful.
Captured and sold into slavery by an orangutan operator named Limbo (Paul Giamatti), Davidson becomes the pet project of human rights activist Ari (Helena Bonham Carter), whose dream is to teach man to live alongside apes as equals. Ari's do-gooder campaign is greeted with exasperation by her senator pop (David Warner), but it's ex-beau Gen. Thade (Tim Roth) she should be worried about.
Ari's spurned lover is actively plotting genocide against the entire human race, and when Davidson and a few renegade slaves escape -- with Ari and her bodyguard Krull (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) as shields -- that's all the ammunition he needs to gain government sanction to carry out his plan.
Hand-to-hand combat: The Biblical allusions in this "Apes" fly fast and furiously in the final act as Davidson and his fellow humans head for the desert (the Promised Land?) as a Thade-led battalion (Pharaoh's army?) descends upon them. The hand-to-hand combat scenes between man and ape will be familiar to anyone who's seen "Gladiator," but Burton saves his real surprise for the ending. Or, should I say endings?
Like "A.I.," "Apes" '01 just doesn't know when to quit, resulting in multiple climaxes when any one would have sufficed. The ultimate capper (and it is a doozy) plays more like an homage to the Statue of Liberty coda from 1968's "Planet" than a natural progression of this film's plot.
The last thing I expected from a Burton "Apes" was for the baroquely twisted director to play it straight. Rather than subverting the material or looking for new layers of interpretation, he never strays too far from the template of that Charlton Heston war horse.
Like the Civil Rights era-inspired original, Burton's "Apes" is an old-fashioned plea for racial tolerance and understanding.
Cast delivers: Characterization takes a back seat to spectacle, but Burton's cast delivers for him anyway. Roth, Michael Clarke Duncan (as Thade's second-in-command), Giamatti, and Bonham-Carter do yeoman work under layers of extraordinarily realistic Rick Baker makeup.
Although foursquare Wahlberg doesn't make the most riveting of action heroes, at least he's not required to wear Heston's trademark loincloth for the role.