Apathy on the Planet of the Apes (2001)

Let us ponder the summer of 2001. It was a time of wild risks and terrible ideas. A big budget adult animated movie loosely tied to the Final Fantasy games crashed and burned. Disney tried to merge Saving Private Ryan with Titanic. AI was genius but alienating. There were successful movies such as sequels like The Mummy Returns and Rush Hour 2 and mega franchises Shrek and The Fast and the Furious kicked off here but the summer of 2001 is mostly to be post mortemed.

No film exemplifies the sheer baffling nature of the summer like the reboot of Planet of the Apes. As a film, it is a bland and uninteresting adventure movie. It’s a 2.5/4. The action is perfectly fine, the acting serviceable, and the makeup actually pretty good. But it’s not interesting to study for that.

No this film is fascinating as a flashpoint of so many trends in the business at this moment. Here is a film at the crossroads between the star driven era and the IP era. It’s a film at the end of the boomer nostalgia era and at the exact end of the irony soaked remake moment. It reflects decades of development but wound up at the least interesting ending. And most crucial, it was the first time a studio cracked the code of hiring a unique interesting director and sanding them down.

And that ending. I have thoughts.

The best way to think of this film is as the perfect example of a costly hit. It made money and it was not poorly received. But it soured fast with audiences and it was big enough of a hit to wreck some reputations. Movies this big and this meh are the kinds of hits no filmmaker wants.

So let us start with the context of how the film happened. Development began in 1988 with Adam Rifkin pitching an alternate sequel that almost happened that would have been a sword and sandals film. Peter Jackson, director of the wildest risk in 2001, had a renaissance take. Oliver Stone was going to produce a rather sobering SF take for Phillip Noyce to direct.

All of these takes are rather fascinating to read about. It’s obvious Fox wanted to take the relaunch of this series seriously. But a big problem that you see as you read about the approaches is the studio wanted comedy. They wanted to sand off any edges. And the original Apes films are edgy until the bland finale. They take risks. They’re angry. They’re not what Fox wanted.

So to look at what we got is to see the epitome of safe. The script was even originally called The Visitor: Part 1 of the Chronicles of Ashlar and indeed the script is set on a fictional planet. It is a generic outsider comes to a strange land and helps a subjugated race script. It’s A Princess of Mars with simians. There’s none of the commentary that blacklist survivor Michael Wilson and leftist science fiction icon Rod Serling put in to the original let alone the sly satire that fills Pierre Boulle’s genius book.

But I get it. After years of development and facing a summer without a blockbuster as Fox did, it was go time and they had something they could film. They could rush the development and get it out.

So now we come to Tim Burton’s involvement. And it’s the great frustration of the film but it’s easy to explain. Because let’s be blunt. There’s nothing of Burton in this film and there should be. Burton was in 2000 coming off of Sleepy Hollow after Mars Attacks after Ed Wood after Batman Returns after Edward Scissorhands after Batman after Beetlejuice after Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. That is a canon any director would kill for. Tim Burton is a cartoon today but in 2000 he rightly meant something.

This movie derailed Burton forever. After this he still had at least one great movie, Big Fish, but Burton’s name is meaningless now and that’s a loss. And while part of it is things like overusing Johnny Depp, there’s a magic that’s missing from his work and you can’t overlook that making this movie seemingly broke him.

What happened? Well it’s hard not to look at the production. This movie had a release date it was going to hit. Burton had absolutely no control. He was lured onto it with the potential of it but he was useless. Hell the script that excited him onto it was rewritten by hack supremes Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal. This is not a Burton film.

Ok so the film. It’s fine. It’s actually a serviceable film in the genre. I don’t love it but it moves fast enough. I want to say more about it but I don’t have much to say. Honestly that’s not fair. What I do have to talk about are two things that shine.

First let’s celebrate an artist who did get to shine, the iconic Rick Baker. The greatest makeup artist ever shone here. Famously he chased the perfect ape makeup his whole career and he got as close as he could while still doing humanoid work. His work is expressive and gives space for the actors to be visible through it. It’s incredible work.

I also have to praise the actors. Sure Mark Wahlberg is his usual twitchy nothing and why was Estella Warren a thing but everyone else is good to great. Helena Bonham Carter is fantastic, playing her British rose type but as an ape. Tim Roth is a gleefully evil villain though his performance isn’t good enough to make up for losing Snape to make this. Paul Giamatti is at his best weasel here. Michael Clarke Duncan makes a great heavy. The cast is really better than everything else.

These are stellar elements but there’s a giant problem at the core of this movie. It doesn’t want to be a Planet of the Apes movie. Burton and original writer William Broyles Jr. didn’t want to make one by their own admission so why make this? They don’t have any original ideas here and the studio clearly didn’t either. This is just a sci-fi movie with a license slammed on apathetically.

And they do fake caring about it. There are a few bland call backs. There’s a cameo by Charlton Heston that only exists for the joke of him as an ape. It’s just that all of it could be cut. This could have been lizards or cats.

I stress that the original series meant something. Wilson and Serling were legends on the first sure but the ideas didn’t stop. The grand allegory of the underclass taking over the world is there through the end. Exploitation and conflict are always there in the films. And it’s just not there in this film.

This movie is a shameless bid to try and exploit the nostalgia the term Planet of the Apes but it’s of the same trend we saw in the later 90s. It’s ashamed of the brand like Godzilla, Lost in Space, and of all things The X-Files. It’s pathetic and it doesn’t work. You’re not going to win people over by saying “yeah the thing we made is bad but it’s good now!” And again, the Planet of the Apes series was widely considered brilliant.

There’s another example that fits this movie too. X-Men was this kind of film. An apathetic director, a stellar cast, a rushed release date, and anger towards the material. That one performed similarly, plummeting fast after a strong start. Yet that led to a highly successful franchise which only slowly petered out. This was done in one. Why?

Part of it I think has to be how nothing the mythology of the world is. It’s revealed this universe is the descendants of apes and humans from a space station the hero worked on. Compare that to mankind decimated itself in wars. That this planet isn’t Earth is important because it’s so underwhelming. Who cares about events on Ashlar?

The world building here really is pathetic. And it could have been better. The idea is animals taking the remnants of human civilization and making a world is interesting. Nope. It’s sanded off western civilization. The look of this world is hopelessly unappealing too. Junkyard Tatooine.

So there was no reason to go back. But look, franchises have started from less. The ape makeup is good. The brand was strong. Had the movie stopped at just the hero escaping to Earth? Fine. Maybe a good hook would have been the villain revealed to have assembled an army to attack the planet. Great. Done.

Oh we all know what came next.

I’m not as confused as most about the ending. I assumed in the theater the bad guy made it to Earth earlier in the past and took over and that was why the Apes dominated Earth. The problem is I’m guessing that. The even bigger problem is by Tim Burton’s own admission he had no idea what the hell was going on and literally only put the ending on as a challenge to the next director to take on the franchise.

I want to unpack everything wrong with that last sentence. First you have a director so aggressively disinterested in their own film they’re openly declaring they not only don’t want to do another but they’re torching the series on the way out. Second you’re handing off not say an easy to digest hook like the Joker card in Batman Begins, which was actually picked up by the same creator. You’re creating an entire film worth of exposition needed to make the scene work. But most importantly, in creating a dare to the next guy, arguably the only thing Burton cared about, he insulted the audience.

It’s not that the ending was open, I stress. Peter Jackson ended The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring on a cliffhanger and while audiences knew the next year it would be resolved, it wouldn’t have mattered if they didn’t. The ending was a satisfying pause after a masterpiece.

No the Apes ending was a joke on the audience and you cannot make people angry. This ending still enrages people to this day. I saw so many google hits about trying to understand it and nobody does. They can’t. It explicitly means nothing.

I think that ending has a lot to do with why such a mediocre film became such a joke. Because look, ignore the other Apes films, this isn’t a bad time killer. Baker’s work and the cast are fun. Burton isn’t an incompetent director. But telling the audience that there was no point to what they sat through because the story would be resolved in an unmade second film when they didn’t understand what the hell just happened poisoned the film. If the famous twist of The Sixth Sense underlined the care of the writing and ideas of that film, this underlined how hollow the film was.

And that was it for the Apes of Ashlar. A Dark Horse comic series limped to a close within a year. The kids novels tying in gasped to a close too. And there were two adult novels, one of which I will review soon. And the video game. OK, there was a lot of prequel work to try to build this universe but fascinatingly not a panel trying to sequelize this film. And I don’t think there ever will be even as 2000s nostalgia begins.

Because now it’s time to address the gorilla in the room. I’ve made it this far talking about what a bad adaptation of Planet of the Apes this was. 10 years and 9 days later, Fox took a second shot with Rise of the Planet of the Apes, beginning the saga of Caesar. I’m not going to shock anyone to say I think that’s an utterly genius trilogy.

I think in 9 days, we’ll look at the 10th anniversary of that set. See you then.

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