For a certain type of science-fiction fan -- say, my grade-school self -- 1968's "Planet of the Apes" was the ultimate movie of its genre for that era. At worst, it was a very strong second to the same year's "2001: A Space Odyssey." The original "Planet of the Apes," directed by the late Franklin J. Schaffner and adapted from the popular Pierre Boulle novel by "Twilight Zone" creator Rod Serling, had it all -- a tough-guy astronaut (Charlton Heston), a trip into outer space, time travel, a crash landing, armed conflict with hairy, semi-scary ape men and a hint of a romance with a scantily clad girl from the newfound planet. It may be easy to forget 33 years down the line, but "Planet" turned into a veritable pop-culture cottage industry, spawning four big-screen sequels, four paperback novelizations, two television series and numerous tie-in products.
Tim Burton, 10 years old in 1968, must have been similarly struck by the movie's original concept and provocative vision: The visionary director persevered with his interest in taking on the beloved film, admittedly breaking what he has called "the first rule of remakes" -- by remaking a movie that was so fondly remembered. He hired a promising star (Mark Wahlberg), an indie-movie favorite (Tim Roth) and an art-house diva (Helena Bonham Carter), nabbed veteran monster-movie makeup artist Rick Baker and, for the producer's spot, tapped Richard D. Zanuck, head of Twentieth Century Fox when the original movie was made. Longtime Burton collaborator Danny Elfman concocted the exotic, percussion-heavy score. The results: The new "Planet," while certainly unable to duplicate the exuberance related to the discovery of a fascinating new world for those who've seen the original, is every bit as much fun as its predecessor.
The visuals alone are worth the price of admission, as the action moves from a combination spaceship and animal-research laboratory to an intergalactic electrical storm to a tropical rain forest. Smack in the middle of the foliage is a teeming ape city, where the newly captured astronaut Leo (Wahlberg) is taken following a crash into a swampy lake.
Moments after setting foot onto dry land, he's caught up in a stampede of humans, fleeing from an endless stream of brutal apes intent on capturing their easy prey and selling them to slave trader Limbo (Paul Giamatti). The humans, including the ailing Karubi (Kris Kristofferson) and his pretty, swollen-lipped daughter, Daena (swimmer-turned-model Estella Warren), then will be branded and sold to the highest bidder.
"Take your hands off me, you damn dirty human," one ape, revolted by the look and the smell of the subjugated species, declares in a neat twist on a line Heston uttered in the original. (The aging actor and NRA president makes a notable cameo this time out.) The references to the treatment of African-Americans in the United States, along with the contemporary enmity between the races, are clear, and disturbing. Limbo, in a desperate plea of self-preservation, borrows a page from the nightly news: "Can't we all just get along?"
Thade, the brutal military leader played by Roth, would rather fight to the death than switch to a society where apes and men live as equals, the latter a social revolution advocated by the sensitive human-rights activist Ari (Bonham Carter). Thade, along with his hulking lieutenant (Michael Clarke Duncan), are representative of the new version of the planet's dominant population: These apes, snarling, baring their teeth and wielding fierce smackdown blows, are downright frightening, twice as fearsome as the critters in the 1968 movie.
The new "Planet," also bolstered by impressive battle sequences and a complicated relationship between the new human and the sensitive female ape, ends on a familiar note. The world remains upside down, and the possibility is ripe for a sequel.
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