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Great Apes!: Planet of the Apes (2001)

In the sixth installment of Great Apes!, Witney finds himself, rather unexpectedly, defending the maligned 2001 Apes remake made by Tim Burton. 

People really hated this one. When it came out in the summer of 2001, Tim Burton’s remake of Planet of the Apes was instantly rejected by fans and critics alike, and it has since grown into a rather infamous turkey, often referred to as one of the worst remakes of all time. People considered not only an unworthy chapter in the Apes franchise, but many consider it the point at which Burton himself – previously hailed as the co-founder of Goth and all-around nerd darling – began to make bad films in earnest. Planet of the Apes 2001 is not as maligned as something like, say, Catwoman, but it’s largely known for its lack of quality.

It’s also not that bad.

Planet of the Apes 2001 Thade

I admit that Burton’s Apes film is a mess. The screenplay is sloppy, the story doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, and the lead character is a bit dull. Also, don’t put any thought into the big “twist” ending because it simply doesn’t add up. But this film is so much fun to look at, and such a fun homage to sci-fi films of the past, that I often find myself defending it despite its weaknesses. I think the issue most people take with the film is its overall tone. This doesn’t feel like an Apes movie because it’s not in any way linked with grand themes of the fate of humanity. The previous Apes films have been all about the eventual downfall of man and the eventual rise of apes. There has been something playfully apocalyptic about the Apes movies. Apes 2001 doesn’t involve the fate of humanity, the apocalypse, or anything really deeply sci-fi or too philosophical. This planet of the apes was not Earth all along, but just some planet somewhere.n

The themes this time around focus more on slavery than on the apocalypse. A dashing white hero named Leo Davidson (Mark Wahlberg) lives aboard a space station, and is conducting experiments with his space chimp. When the chimp disappears into a mysterious space vortex, Leo follows and crash lands on the planet of the apes, time and place unknown. Here, (mostly white) humans can speak and think, but are frequently kidnapped and enslaved by the local apes, who can also speak and think and live in a really cool looking ape city. Indeed, everything looks great in this film from the ape makeup to the ape acting (lots of fun loping) to the costumes to the production design; in this regard, Burton can always knock it out of the park. From there, Leo will convince the apes to fight a civil war over the freedom of the humans. With him is the pretty ape woman Ari (Helena Bonham Carter), and against him is the warmongering chimpanzee Thade (Tim Roth). Paul Giamatti plays an ape slave dealer and Charlton Heston has an uncredited cameo as an ape elder.

Planet of the Apes 2001 Wahlberg

Oh yes, and it’s eventually explained that the apes arrived on that planet centuries ago, sent by the very same humans that Leo worked with. The space hole was also a portal in time, so Leo is largely responsible for this planet he landed on. Instant karma, that. Don’t think about the chronology too much, though, because it does not stand up to any amount of scrutiny.

It may be a remake of Planet of the Apes, but this feels more like Burton was trying to remake something along the lines of Forbidden Planet. This is Burton’s stab at 1950s serial sci-fi, complete with the white-clad hero, the clunky pseudo-science (it’s once again never explained how apes learned to speak), and the foxy leather bikini babe played by a model (Estella Warren fills this role). I think a lot of the film’s weaknesses can be credited to Wahlberg himself. Not that he’s bad in this role, but he’s merely miscast. I think the role required someone a bit more square-jawed and blandly heroic; someone more in-keeping with the gleaming movie serial heroes of old.

Does it work as an overall film? Not really. The chronology is confusing, the science is dumb, and the story is all over the map. It’s a great looking film, and and entertaining one that may take some concentration to appreciate. I’d certainly still rank it above Battle for the Planet of the Apes. This film was such a bomb that it failed to reboot the series proper. It would be ten more years before someone else were to tackle the material again.

Join me next time for Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011).

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2 comments

  • This remake’s ending fits the novel better than the older movie (original title “La Planète des singes”). The astronaut visits another planet, where apes took control and have overthrown humans – and when he returns to Earth, he finds that the history of his homeworld took the same course.

  • It didn’t bomb (and in fact is still the highest grossing of all the Apes films). A sequel never came because Burton was so angry at Fox during production, he said he’d rather jump out a window than make a sequel.