PLANET OF THE APES - Blu-ray review

If you're a fan of Tim Burton or the original Planet of the Apes, this lifeless and lackluster remake is going to disappoint.

James Plath's picture

I had read Pierre Boulle's novel The Bridge Over the River Kwai before watching "The Planet of the Apes" in the theater back in 1968, so I had high expectations for a taut, intelligent drama with plenty of psychological implications. I wasn't disappointed. In fact, it was one of two films I remember attending that caused the entire audience to sit in total silence throughout the end-credits, stunned by the final scene (the other, by the way, was "Von Ryan's Express").

The first "Planet of the Apes" film starred Charlton Heston and inspired four sequels, a live-action TV series, and an animated TV show: "Beneath the Planet of the Apes" (1970), "Escape from the Planet of the Apes" (1971), "Conquest of the Planet of the Apes" (1972), "Battle for the Planet of the Apes" (1973), "The Planet of the Apes" (TV, 1974), and "Return to the Planet of the Apes" (Animated, 1975).

This uninspired 2001 sequel isn't much of a space odyssey, and it hasn't spawned anything except some well-deserved criticism--ironic, considering that the same year it was released, the Library of Congress decided to include the "culturally significant" original in the National Film Registry.

So why do you mess with an iconic film, especially one with such a great knockout punch? Beats me, and director Tim Burton is no help. In his commentary track (the lone feature, aside from the trailer) on the Blu-ray release, he only talks about the basics of production, not the thinking behind the significant concept changes.

My colleague, John J. Puccio, called Burton's version "leaden and dull," adding, in his review of the DVD release, "The movie creates little excitement, builds virtually no suspense, and altogether shuns any semblance of characterization." In a nutshell, that's the problem.

From the minute that Burton and his trio of screenwriters decided to veer sharply away from the 1968 screenplay, they were off-course. The original had three astronauts crash-landing on a planet ruled by apes. In this version, it's just Wahlberg, who plays Capt. Leo Davidson with such bland nonchalance that it seems as if he's more interested in striking poses than breathing life into his character. Certainly, some of the tension from the first film is lost when we don't have the same sense of urgency attached to the astronaut's survival. In the 1968 version, you'll recall, Charlton Heston's astronaut buddies are separated from him and turn up dead, making his own situation seem all the more threatening. That tension is missing here.

In the original, there was a complete reversal of evolutionary fortunes. Apes could talk while humans made grunting animalistic noises and behaved like developing Neanderthals. Taylor (Heston) was shot in the throat and could not speak, and so much of the early tension surrounded his efforts to communicate that he could talk and that he was from another world. Keeping humans and apes at opposite ends of the evolutionary hierarchy made it easier to believe that apes thought that humans have no souls and aren't capable of intelligent thought.

In Burton's version, the line between primitive and advanced species is blurred to the point where it makes little sense. If humans can talk and express emotions, those same lines coming out of the apes seem just plain dumb rather than understandable. It also kills the whole religious paranoia as a reason for guarding the secret that perhaps once humans were more advanced. And if these humans can talk and seem just as reasonable as the apes, why haven't they developed primitive weapons of mass destruction to take on their oppressors, especially when we're told they outnumber the apes four to one? For that matter, how are the apes so superior when they still chase off on all fours and still make "ooooo ooooo ahhhh ahhh" noises and sniff each other? That's a superior civilization? It also seems more ante-bellum than sci-fi to have "house humans" and "field humans" who seem more like intelligent slaves than a dominated species.

In the original, Taylor seemed resigned to the fact that he was on that planet for the duration, and so the sideplot about his finding a love-interest from among the primitives seemed more significant. It was a sci-fi version of "Pygmalion" as we watched him try to teach her language and mold her into someone with whom he might start a new life. He had a lot invested in her, so when she was threatened it upped the emotional ante for all of us who were vicariously following along.

In Burton's version, with the love-interest (model Estella Warren) able to speak and fight, there's nothing to teach, and no relationship really evolves. Besides, when she has a father right there (Kris Kristofferson, as Karubi), it makes her pretty much off-limits, doesn't it?

Pierre Boulle's novel was anti-war, and the first film remained true to that theme. Here again, Burton's film veers off-course and provides us a "Planet of the Apes" version of "Spartacus," though without the logical build-up. Suddenly Wahlberg is rallying this rag-tag bunch of humans who have come from all around to "see this man who has dared to stand up to apes," but he does so with the same lack of emotion that he displayed throughout most of the film. So where were Wahlberg's and Burton's heads during the making of this film?

If anything's nightmarish about the ending, it's the logic, which is biggest problem with this film. As for special effects (which seems the only reason for remaking the film), they're really quite good (except for silly-looking green-screen shots of Wahlberg supposedly riding a horse in battle) and the make-up is better than the ape-faces that earned an Honorary Oscar for the 1968 film. But the emphasis is on spectacle and action, not science fiction.

I never saw this film in the theaters, but my guess is that if audiences sat there in silence at the end, it's because they couldn't believe how dumb and incomprehensible it was.

This remake was all about visual style, not substance, and that makes it perfect for Blu-ray. The 1080p HD resolution (2.35:1 aspect ratio) is strong with detail, though many of the scenes are dimly lit with blackish-blue backdrops. The film was transferred to a 25GB disc using MPEG-2 technology at 18MBPS. Black levels are good, color saturation isn't full, as you'd expect from a film set on a planet that's supposed to look denuded.

The featured soundtrack is English DTS HD 5.1 Master Lossless Audio, and it's got plenty of pop and zip, with full use of all speakers. Alternate soundtracks are Spanish and French Dolby Digital 5.1, with subtitles in English (CC) and Spanish.

The only bonus feature, aside from the theatrical trailer in HD, is one of the two commentaries from the DVD release. On it, Burton seems just as disinvested in the film as the final product would indicate. There are long pauses between comments and what he has to say is restricted mostly to the nuts and bolts of making the film--nothing conception, and nothing that would answer any of our most pressing questions. Like WHY??!!

Bottom Line:
If you're a fan of Tim Burton or the original "Planet of the Apes," this lifeless and lackluster remake is going to disappoint--especially if you want your science fiction to make sense.


Film Value