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Monkey Business 

In Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes, chimps swing and sway, crawl at breakneck speed, swing from vines, throw temper tantrums, or pick and poke at hair. Orangutans lope and slump, and are too smart for their own good. Gorillas stomp and pound and growl with cruel basso profundo. Humans recoil in fright, flee for their lives, and fight more out of pride than smarts. And, of course, everyone tosses out cheeky lines with an ironic glee that Burton's postmodern fans adore. (As a slave-trader cautions during a sale of his cargo: "The last thing you want in your house is a human teenager!")

Yes, indeed, this truly is the "re-imagining" of the 1968 sci-fi classic that Burton promised when fans wondered whether this version would be a remake or a sequel. "Re-imagining" in that it would be filtered through Burton's visionary cinematic lens, which has created his own myths or recreated others. Whether it's been his homages to the Batman comic, or his own fairy tales like Edward Scissorhands, or even an absurdly fictionalized biography with Ed Wood, Burton traps stories in his own Gothic world. His films are more auteur playgrounds than anything else.

And even in a literary adaptation like last year's Sleepy Hollow, they have for the most part maintained a contemporary charm, either stripping cliches or using them for effect, turning them inside out to show them to us anew. Burton is, quite simply, one of his generation's great cinematic stylists, forever walking the fine line between absorption and detachment with his interpretations.

His Planet of the Apes is indeed stripped down and re-told, sometimes for better, and sometimes for worse. His apes have greater dimensions than their 1968 predecessors from the Pierre Boulle adaptation -- at least physically. But the story does not. Gone are serious questions about evolution, racism, class, religion, co-existence. In their place are pure escapist fantasy and broad, ironic humor.

Like the first version, an astronaut, Leo Davidson (Mark Wahlberg), gets caught up in an electromagnetic storm (one black hole of a plot hole) chasing after his astro-chimp protégé, landing in a world where apes rule and humans serve. Leo is rounded up with other humans during a hunt and sold to the lovely upper-class chimp Ari by wise-cracking slave-trader Limbo (Paul Giamatti), a cynical orangutan. Ari spends the rest of the movie fawning all over the unimpressed Leo, mired in an unspoken love triangle with the perfectly coiffed human Daena (Estella Warren).

Leo's escape plans are challenged by yet another chimp, a venomous ape who hates humans and sees nothing but trouble in Leo: Gen. Thade (Tim Roth), a chimp with a chip on his shoulder the size of Saturn. Instead of focusing on serious issues, Burton focuses on creating a world of apes who truly act like apes, but with a sense of humor, too. They're intelligent, they can reason, they think they're superior, but they're trapped by their foibles just like humans. In one particular scene, Thade loses it in a tantrum that even unnerves his right-hand gorilla, Attar (Michael Clarke Duncan), stomping and swinging about in a fit.

To their credit, Roth and other ape-cast actors grasp the fantastic nature of the story and act accordingly, graduates of an "Ape School" that taught them the respective breeds' mannerisms. Roth brings a physicality to his character that is wholly believable, and his over-acting becomes a plus as he seethes and hisses, sometimes at no one in particular. Giamatti practically steals every scene he's in as the mercenary and cowardly Limbo, capturing the expressionism Burton obviously wanted as he cries, "Can't we all just get along?!?" Giamatti is a character actor to watch.

A late cameo by Charlton Heston, the Apes series' early hero, is so perfectly executed it would be morally wrong to say anything more. But he does remind us what the astronaut character demands, and what Wahlberg ultimately fails to deliver: an overarching reaction to the madness around him. Wahlberg's Leo rushes through the film without any visceral emoting. Too bad.

Burton also benefits from supreme soundscapes that turns ape growls into earthquakes, costume designs that include menacing battle helmets and dinner-party gowns with equal flair, and the ultra-real special effects that Industrial Light & Magic typically provide.

But as the film quickly turns into a routine battle of and escape from the planet of the apes, Burton also commits a critical gaffe in an ending that relies on that pesky electromagnetic storm and several leaps of faith from the audience. It's as if the studio demanded a jaw-dropping ending along the lines of the first film, and the resulting ending falls short of Burton's natural talents.

Which again is too bad, because otherwise Burton has done what he's always done with such aplomb, creating a world within his own darkly funny world. And in this summer of misses and near-misses, Tim Burton's off-kilter re-imagination will suffice.

click to enlarge Gen. Thade (Tim Roth) finds himself in a battle for the Planet of the Apes.
  • Gen. Thade (Tim Roth) finds himself in a battle for the Planet of the Apes.
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