Friday, July 14, 2017

Side by Side: PLANET OF THE APES (1968) vs. PLANET OF THE APES (2001)

Welcome to another installment of SIDE BY SIDE, where we dissect the differences and similarities between two films, be it a remake/reboot with its original, a sequel with its original, or two similar movies. This week we get ready for the upcoming release of War for the Planet of the Apes by looking at film that started it all, 1968's PLANET OF THE APES, and compare it to Tim Burton's 2001 remake.

Based on the novel by Pierre Boulle with a screenplay co-written by Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling, the 1968 original version of Planet of the Apes serves as an example of the qualities that make science fiction such a transcendent and timeless storytelling genre. The story of Apes is well known. Astronauts setting off on a journey in deep space enter hibernation, and awaken to find themselves marooned on a planet where apes are the dominant species, and humans are little more than beasts. The astronauts are captured; one is killed, one is lobotomized, while the third, George Taylor (overplayed by Charlton Heston), befriends and at the end of the film is released by sympathetic scientists. The film ends with Taylor riding off into the sunset, only to make one final, horrifying discovery. That discovery has been referenced and parodied enough times in popular culture that it's really not a spoiler any more.

Planet of the Apes '68, like much of American sci-fi at the time, is restrained and introspective, more inclined to meditate on philosophical questions than titillate the audience with prolonged action sequences. In fact, there are only two moments in the film that seem to be meant to liven things up: an early scene in which Taylor and his crew are captured by an ape hunting party, and a prolonged chase scene near the midpoint. That's the scene that climaxes with the famous "get your stinking paws off me" line. Otherwise, Planet of the Apes is a movie about the conflict between science and reason, versus tradition and dogma. The discovery that Taylor can speak threatens to undermine everything the apes believe about their origins. Two young scientists, Zira (Kim Hunter) and Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) argue that these new ideas should be investigated further, since Taylor's ability to speak and the evidence it presents of his intelligence are scientifically unassailable. But, as has often happened, these new ideas are resisted by the Old Guard, represented here by Doctor Zaius (Maurice Evans). The way the conflict between Zaius and the two young scientists plays out should be familiar. One side, Cornelius and Zira, come with evidence. The other, Zaius, instead of countering with evidence of its own, is content to plug its ears, loudly counter with unsupported articles of faith, and spend its energy working to destroy the thing that challenges that faith. Zaius tries to have Taylor lobotomized, and then gelded, before Zira and Cornelius help him escape.

I very much appreicate the way the film presents the conflict between these two sides. It's easy to pick sides in most philosophical disagreements, because the question at the center of the debate is ultimately a small thing that will have little effect on one's own life, much less the foundations of society. But the debate at the core of Planet of the Apes' plot is not a small thing. We have a hard time grasping what an awesome thing it can be to face a revelation that threatens fundamental beliefs, because we living today have never had to deal with such a discovery. All our big questions (evolution, aliens, etc) come down to a matter of preference, because no evidence has ever been found to so completely prove one side as to render the other indefensible. But Doctor Zaius is forced to confront just this kind of definitive evidence. So while it may be tempting to write him off as a blind fool, Zaius understands the effect that public knowledge of Taylor's existence would have on society. His resistance to the evidence Taylor represents, then, is unfortunate, but justified. The compromise reached by the two sides, Taylor gets his freedom, while Zaius destroys all Cornelius' findings of a society that existed before apes, may be disappointing, but it's the only way that question could have played out that is both not tragic, and believable.

My only real complaint about the movie is Heston himself. He's prone to overacting, and does so to such a degree here that he is the only thing most people remember about the movie. Even the ending is only remembered because of Heston's reaction to it, though that final shot of a ruined Statue of Liberty is iconic in its own right.

But if all you know about Planet of the Apes '68 is the ham that got top biliing, you're missing out on a movie that explores a very important question: what if your beliefs were proved -- actually, irrefutably proved -- to be wrong? Both Zaius and Taylor are confronted with such proof, Zaius over the course of the story, Taylor at the very end, and who among us can say if we would respond with Zaius' resolute stubbornness, or Taylor's screaming rage?

Tim Burton's reimagining of the story for Planet of the Apes 2001 is disappointing by comparison, but only because he got so much right, that what he got wrong just stands out all the more. While the theme of facts vs. belief is still present, it's a shadow of it's former self. That the humans are intelligent is self-evident in this version. Not only are the humans able to speak, and do it so well that they all sound like suburbanites slumming in some kind of bizarre theme park, but some of them are even craftsmen. An ape named Ari (Helena Bonham Carter), who fills the role played by Zira in the original version, shows off a scarf in one scene that was made by a human. So right away, Burton's version misses the point of the original film. With the humans' intelligence so nakedly obvious, of course anyone who still thinks they're just animals is demonstrably wrong. Instead of a story about what happens when tradition is met with new ideas, we get an action-heavy popcorn flick full of clumsy preaching about how we need to be kind to animals. If this movie were made just a few years later, I'm sure that bloody Sarah McLachlan song would have found it's way into the soundtrack somewhere.

The leader of those forces seeking to keep the humans in cages is Thade (Tim Roth), a general instead of a scientist. Since Burton views Thade's position in the story's conflict with such childish simplicity, Thade is portrayed as little more than a cartoon villain. Whenever he is seen, his face is frozen in a hooded, contemptuous sneer, and every line he speaks comes out in a growl. There is no depth or sympathy to this character at all.

About the only thing that doesn't change for this remake in terms of the characters is the hero, Leo Davidson (Mark Wahlberg). Once again he's a marooned astronaut, come to the planet under strange circumstances and captured by the apes in a hunting raid. But instead of serving as the evidence of dangerous new ideas, the film makes our hero into a kind of low-rent Spartacus to the other humans, rallying them into a makeshift army near the end of the film for a final showdown with their ape overlords.

That showdown, and the last 15 to 20 minutes of the film in general, comprise most of my problems with the movie, so let's take a moment to talk about those things Burton got right that I mentioned earlier. First, and most importantly, are the visuals. Because of what I suspect was a mix of a desire to pay homage to the original classic, and a concession to the limitations of CGI at the time, Burton revisits the original film's "actors dressed as apes" aesthetic. But Burton does it so much better than the original did. In the original film, all the actors are wearing the the same kind of generic monkey suit that might have been used as a punchline on some TV variety show, and they never try to act like anything other than humans wearing funny costumes. This time, the actors are actually made up to look like different types of apes, and while the actors' efforts to move like non-human creatures still don't hold a candle to the amazing performances seen in the more recent Apes movies, efforts are made all the same. This attempt to imitate ape-like movement is actually one of the things Tim Roth does well as Thade, before he opens mouth and begins chewing the scenery yet again.

Burton also makes a better choice of the film's setting than the original did, which for some reason had the apes living in desert caves like a weird parody of The Flintstones. Burton's version has the apes living in more tropical-looking areas, the kinds of places one would expect to find such creatures. So while Burton may have fumbled the story, his work to present a more fully realized world for that story to take place in deserves credit. Yes, I'm aware Burton had a bigger budget -- adjusting for inflation, Burton's Planet of the Apes cost over three times as much as the original -- but the results still speak for themselves.

Now, about that ending. No spoilers ahead; I'm just going to gripe a bit, because it seems like Burton said to himself "Hmm, this movie's turning out really well. I wonder how I can completely bollocks it up at the last minute?" Well, he found a way. Several, in fact.

It starts off with that final clash between the apes and the humans, which is pretty dang spectacular as far as it goes, given that the scene appears to use mostly practical effects. The first problem is that the battle is resolved through the kind of contrived deus ex machina that's so blatant, you can almost see the scriptwriter playing the "get out of a jam free" card. This leads into the "villian as dangerous obsessive" payoff. That leads into Attar (Michael Clarke-Duncan), Thade's right hand man and a soldier so devoted to his general he's downright sycophantic in places, undergoing the kind of presto-chango instant conversion typically reserved for a character in a Jack Chick religious pamphlet. Once the battle has ended, Davidson inexplicably finds a way to return home, and so we're reminded that the character was never more than a Mary Sue to begin with.

And yeah, I said "Davidson returns home". That sucker punch of a twist at the end of the original? Not here. Or if Burton's final stinger is meant to imply that Davidson was on Earth all along, Burton handles it in a way that makes no bloody sense. But again, I shall not spoil; ham-fisted narrative buggery on this scale must be seen to be fully appreciated.

My hope is that, after the story of Caesar is told and the people who decide these things begin kicking around the idea of remaking Planet of the Apes again, this time on the scale of the most recent films (if they aren't already), they'll decide to do the project. The last two Apes movies have been fan-freaking-tastic, and I think they could more than do the original story justice. For now, I imagine there's some alternate world where the story of Planet of the Apes '68 was told with the budget and effects of Planet of the Apes '01, and spoiled by modern SFX as I am, I am jealous. Because the remake we have now is beautiful, but it's message is cheap, and it's story is lazy. Fortunately the property has lately been in the hands of people who seem to understand the potential in this story, so after War ends, I hope there will be more to come.

Planet of the Apes (1968) is rated G.
Planet of the Apes (2001) is rated PG-13 for some sequences of action/violence.

Robert's Scores:
Planet of the Apes (1968): 8 / 10
Planet of the Apes (2001): 6 / 10

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