Rise of the Planet of the Apes vs. Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes (2001): And the Winner is…

Rise of the Planet of the Apes is beating up on the competition like a band of angry gorillas.

Director Rupert Wyatt’s reboot of the classic 1968-1973 series of films is estimated to earn $55 million this weekend, based on box office projections. Entertainment Weekly describes the movie’s performance so far as “terrific” and the Hollywood Reporter suggests that the film, which cost $93 million to produce, will “shatter all [financial] expectations.”

Critics are raving, Rotten Tomatoes is gushing with an 81% certified fresh rating (highest of all major releases this week) and sequel buzz is louder than feeding time at a monkey house. (That’s it for the cutesy ape metaphors, I promise.)

And all of this reminds me of the summer of 2001, where another pack of Apes cut a path to supremacy through a thicket of hyperbole.

Ten years ago, Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes, a $100 million remake of Franklin J. Schaffner’s original film (as opposed to a reboot, like Rise) had a substantially better opening weekend ($68.5 million) on the way to a domestic gross of $180 million and a worldwide take of more than $362 million. It’s unlikely that Rise will ever approach numbers like that.

So, is Burton’s much-maligned movie actually better than Rise? Not necessarily, but it’s not nearly as bad as you remember, or as meritless as you were lead to believe at the time.

Planet of the Apes (2001) starts off similarly to its 1968 forbear: slightly dickish astronaut Leo Davidson (Mark Wahlberg) travels through a disturbance in time and space that leads him to a planet in the distant future (the year 5021, in this case) where apes rule and humans are subservient. After his ship crash-lands in a body of water, Leo gets caught up in a human hunt led by an imposing gorilla named Attar (Michael Clarke Duncan) and is imprisoned. In captivity he catches the eye of Daena (Estella Warren), a slave girl who looks better in a dirty cage than most women do after a day at Vidal Sassoon.

At this point, the storyline of the remake begins to deviate from the original.

Instead of being locked up for testing and experimentation, Leo and the other humans are handed off to Limbo (Paul Giamatti), a wisecracking, slave-trading orangutan. Ari (Helena Bonham Carter), the chimpanzee daughter of a senator (David Warner), takes particular interest in the buff newcomer and brings him to work in her father’s house, where the human scuffles with vicious General Thade (the amazing, scenery-chomping Tim Roth).

Making matters even more complex, Ari has both a romantic history with Thade and an overt sexual attraction to Leo. Aided by Ari and other members of the senator’s household staff, Leo and the slaves escape with Thade, Attar and their soldiers in hot pursuit. After retrieving some instruments from his sunken space pod, Leo determines that his mothership has landed nearby. But when he finally discovers the vessel in a hidden cave, he realizes that his fellow crewmembers have been dead for thousands of years – and that they perished at the hands of their research monkeys.

With all hope of rescue gone, Leo leads the humans on a last ditch fight against Thade’s army, until their battle is interrupted by a surprise visitor from the sky – Leo’s chimp Pericles, who touches down in the missing landing pod Leo originally left the space station to recover. The apes mistake Pericles for their returning savior, and interpret his arrival as a divine message that peace between man and ape is pre-determined. Thade is subdued and Leo takes off in Pericles’s pod, only to crash-land in Washington D.C. back in his own time, where he discovers that the Lincoln Memorial is now a monument to Thade, and that the apes are once again running the show.

At the time of the film’s release, the inscrutable twist ending was met with universal derision, as was the rest of the film (with the possible exception of Rick Baker’s breathtaking make-up). But in the wake of the raves for Rise, these criticisms of the 2001 film seem like over-reaction.

Burton’s Apes is, without a doubt, too long, too Goth, and far more interested in art direction than storytelling. Mark Wahlberg is a thoroughly charmless leading man, and his delivery of a succession of jokey catch phrases, e.g. “Never send a monkey to do a man’s job,” and “Now we’re the 800 lb. gorilla” is flatter than his washboard abs. I can’t imagine a worse casting choice for Leo; even 78-year-old Charlton Heston (sans hairpiece) would have been better.

Speaking of Heston, his cameo in the Burton film also generated much mishegas at the time. An hour into the movie, the Hollywood legend shows up (almost unrecognizable in orangutan makeup) as Thade’s dying father. That Burton and the writers chose to make him say “Damn them all to hell!” only increased the fanboy vitriol, and rightly so. It was too cute by half, and I wish Heston had just said no, like his good friend Nancy Reagan always suggested.

But the bastardization of the original film’s two most-quoted lines (the other being “Get your hands off of me, you damn, dirty human,” as growled by Michael Clarke Duncan) feels less sacrilegious in the wake of Rise of the Planet of the Apes. I’ve heard no complaints about the new film’s playful repurposing of the classic Apes canon; rather, I’ve heard praise for it. It’s been suggested that Rise is somehow a spiritual homage to the original, even though it bears no tonal resemblance to any aspect of the classic series.

Burton’s Apes, with talented, classically trained actors performing in monkey masks is far closer to the spirit of the original films than Rise. While I disagree with the decision to transform the female chimps in the film into sexpots, the performance of Helena Bonham Carter as Ari is a nuanced joy, often reminding me of Kim Hunter’s work as Zira in the first three movies.

As Thade, Tim Roth is as hissable as any villain in the first five films, Michael Clarke Duncan makes a great gorilla in the warlike tradition of Beneath the Planet of the Apes’ General Ursus (James Gregory) and Paul Giamatti keeps the lolz flowing as Limbo, the Shylock of the jungle.

The simple fact is, when it comes to casting, Rise can’t hold a computer-generated candle to the 2001 Apes remake. Like Wahlberg, James Franco makes for a dull-as-dishwater lead and John Lithgow feels mis-cast as his Alzheimer’s-stricken father. And while Andy Serkis does a great job with Caesar the chimp’s facial expressions, no CGI ape will ever have the visceral impact of a real actor in make up, at least not for me.

Rise is better paced, yes, but still just as boring as Apes 2001 in its bloated midsection, with endless (though beautifully rendered) scenes of Caesar communing with his fellow simians. Rupert Wyatt clearly sought to provide believable motivation for Caesar’s descent into hate and murder, but he fails. Poor treatment by one or two humans is no motivation to wage war with the entire race. And, while I couldn’t help but root for Caesar, the idea that a few dozen primates can somehow overcome the firepower of the armed police force of a major American city required more suspension of disbelief than I could muster.

If you’re going to go for reality in a fantasy film, you can’t chose to ignore that same reality when it meets your narrative needs. In short, you can’t have your Monkey Chow and eat it to. (I know I promised, but I couldn’t resist one more. Sorry.)

The original Apes films were never about technical precision; they were about making magic with limited means. And no $100 million budget will ever be able to buy that magic, nor will a computer be able to create it out of ones and zeros.

Will McKinley

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