Politics & Policy

Planet for Planet

On Tim Burton's Apes.

True story: During the filming of the original Planet of the Apes, the extras used to sit around during their meal breaks according to their species of ape. Still in costume, the gorillas would sit with gorillas, the chimpanzees would sit amidst chimpanzees, and the orangutans would only deign to dine with orangutans. “There’d be a kind of self-segregation,” Charlton Heston told the New York Times a few years ago. “The gorillas would all eat at one table, the chimpanzees at another, the orangutans at another.”

It’s an interesting tidbit because it shows how fortuitous the original film was; even when the cameras weren’t rolling the project seemed to capture certain unpleasant truths about how we simians tend to run our lives.

A philosophy professor of mine once told me that Heidegger’s writing was so abstruse that his fellow Germans used to translate his works into French and then back into German in the hope that some clarification would emerge in the process, like a chemist melting and then refreezing a substance in the hopes of gleaning some novel insight into the stuff’s fundament.

I mention this only because the original Planet of the Apes was based upon — gasp — a French novel, which may be an etymological hint into the origins of the nom de Gaul “cheese-eating surrender monkeys.” But the original 1961 book by Pierre Boulle went through some 40 rewrites, including several drafts by none other than Rod Serling — the Shakespeare of big and small-screen sci-fi. To be fair, Mr. Boulle was a very impressive figure who also wrote Bridge on the River Kwai which became arguably one of the top two or three World War II movies of all time (I never read the book).

Still, Boulle’s book was very different from the final film by the same name. In the novel, the apes lived in a futuristic society with advanced technology. Even more bizarre: the interstellar pioneers were Frenchmen, not Americans (the book ends with the Eiffel Tower, not the Statue of Liberty).

But while all of that went over the side in the final script — the advanced ape society was ditched because it was too expensive; the French astronauts were made American because, well, who would buy the idea of brave French astronauts? — there was still something permanent remaining in the final film adaptation: Irony. Rod Serling and co-writer Michael Wilson, like Heidegger’s German colleagues or my hypothetical determined chemists, rewrote the script 40 times, managing to wring out all of the excess French angst and philosophy but preserving the essence of dark, ironic satire — all the while transforming the idea into an American matinee adventure.

Everything about the original was, well, original. Even when the film was silly, it was silly in exciting ways — like the original Star Wars. The scenario was certainly bizarre, and often absurd. Mute humans living as chattel slaves to a bunch of apes! It was a brilliant and, in a sense, obvious idea. Sure, the film was able to satirize the 1960s in general, racial relations, youth culture, and the nihilism of the nuclear age.

But it also ably skewered the hardwired prejudices which come with being the king of the evolutionary heap. As Julius says, “Human see, human do.” And, because it was a damn fun movie, it never fell over from its own weight (something which cannot be said of its immediate and incredibly gloomy sequel Beneath the Planet of the Apes).

And then there was the indispensable ingredient, Charlton Heston’s performance. Col. George Taylor was a cynic and outcast. But he wasn’t a hippie. He was a classic misanthrope — anti-life but not anti-American. “I’m a seeker too,” he explains. “But my dreams aren’t like yours. I can’t help thinking that somewhere in the universe there has to be something better than man. Has to be.”

Through all of his over-acting Heston came through as a real man. His presence alone was a direct rebuke of the hippy-dippy youth culture. He was from the generation of the (hippy-hating) Kerouac not Hoffman. “Imagine me needing someone,” Taylor laments. “Back on Earth I never did. Oh, there were women. Lots of women. Lots of lovemaking but no love. You see, that was the kind of world we’d made. So I left, because there was no one to hold me there.”

Sure there was plenty of anti-nuclear rhetoric in the film — how could there not be? — but the irreducible insight into Heston’s character was that he did not detest the same America the counterculture detested; he despised the messed-up America the counterculture had helped create. “I had never thought of this picture in terms of being science fiction,” Apes director Franklin Schaffner explained to Cinefantastique. “More or less, it was a political film, with a certain amount of Swiftian satire.”

Still, for the sci-fi purists among us there was much to enjoy. The film was largely internally consistent. With a few dinky or unavoidable exceptions it all made sense and could be enjoyed by a hypercritical pedant and a 10-year-old kid simultaneously (alas, some of us were both). The makeup effects were, for the time, remarkable. Even Pauline Kael dubbed it “one of the most entertaining science-fiction fantasies ever to come out of Hollywood.”

In short, the original Planet of the Apes was perfectly ripe and right for the times.

And, alas, that’s the problem with Tim Burton’s remake: it, too, fits the times perfectly and it’s a far worse movie for it.

Whereas the original film had flashes of deep satire reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut or Hitchcock the remake rarely dips below the sarcastic depths of Gary Trudeau or Herblock.

Tim Burton’s film is a caricature of the times, not a critique. It’s as if he sat down with the editorial board of Mother Jones to create a checklist of liberal and lefty clichés which had to be included. There are endless and easy animal-rights jokes and speeches (of course, animal rights here are, literally, “human rights”). The Luddism is palpable. Charlton Heston — in a cameo as the dying ape leader — explains that human “ingenuity grows with their danger” (although I liked this scene because it features Heston who gets to say “Damn the humans, damn them all to hell,” which is just cool. And, more important, because his appearance marks the only well-done bit of irony when the leader of the NRA laments the horrific fearsomeness of an ancient human handgun).

Meanwhile, even though we are supposed to be rooting for the humans, Wahlberg throws out one-liners about how awful and relatively inferior we are. “The smarter we get, the more violent our world becomes,” he says with all of the intensity you’d expect from a mechanic telling you to pick up your car on Tuesday. Indeed, when Wahlberg needs to issue a Henry V style loin-girding speech a la Mel Gibson in Braveheart, he instead sounds like he’s yelling at a driver who’s about to take his parking spot.

And of course, there are all the racial undertones. Sometimes humans are animals, sometimes they are slaves, but always the distinction is minimal. A free black human encounters a “house human” and delivers a Malcolm X-esque tirade about how “they think they’re better than us!…like they’re part ape!”

And what caricature would be complete without a less than subtle suggestion that conservatives are dictatorial fascists? When General Thade, played very well by Tim Roth, is warned that exterminating the entire human species might be too extreme he apes, literally, Barry Goldwater and snarls, “Extremism in the defense of apes is no vice!”

I bet Barbra Streisand thinks that’s brilliant.

Meanwhile, from a sci-fi perspective the actual premise of the film is simply stupid. I don’t want to ruin the film for everybody, so I will leave some details out. But, the film is predicated on the simply implausible idea that in the future humans will return to the practice of using chimpanzees to pilot spacecraft, as if they are more reliable than remote controls. The idiocy of the idea is displayed very early in the film when it’s clear that the microchip in my answering machine could do better than their best chimp. Moreover, the citizens of the new planet of the apes are of every imaginable ape species, despite the fact that this is impossible from the get-go. Moreover, the gorillas and bonobos and chimps seem to mate with each other and yet, every individual ape seems like a pure bred. Conversely, the angry black man mentioned above seems to be the only black man on the planet despite the fact that he’s of sufficiently dark skin that his having interracial parents seems pretty unlikely. In fact, he provides a perfect example of Burton’s willingness to dispense with credulity for the sake of scoring an easy liberal point.

After a while I stopped counting the idiocies but if someone can tell me where the frigging horses came from, they should sign on with Burton to write the sequel.

There are some good things to say about the movie. The makeup is brilliantly done. But who’s surprised by that? Think of how much better makeup was just nine years later in Star Wars. Tim Roth is superb as General Thade and some of the subplots don’t suck.

And, of course, if you think the original movie was no great shakes then you might think Burton’s Apes compares favorably. After all, I thought the remake of Lost in Space was a remarkably good movie, partly because the one-sound-effect TV show it was based on was crap. If you don’t think this remake is standing on the shoulders of a giant, it may be a perfectly entertaining bit of summer fluff. I just couldn’t see it that way.

And, in the end, there’s the ending, which Matt Drudge and (mistakenly) NRO revealed last week. I won’t ruin it for those of you who don’t know already (I think Drudge should have linked to the ending for people who wanted to know rather than put it on his main page).

But, it must be made clear here and now that the ending is just dumb. It makes about as much sense as Jason leaping out of the water at the end of the first Friday the 13th movie and has far less shock value. There will be lots of talk about “what it means” and how it sets up the exciting sequel and so on. I will tell you right now what it means: bupkus, nada, zilch. It is pure silliness designed to leave the widest possible number of options for the sequel, which, hopefully, will be better written.


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