Friday, 17 August 2018

Your Move, Darwin #8: That Tim Burton Movie (2001)

I don't even know where to start with this. So, I'll just say it. Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes reboot has the reputation of being a bad movie. It's considered to be a terrible movie, in fact. It's the one undeniable Bridge of Crapness I have to cross with this project, the thing I've been dreading.

I'd never seen it before. Now, over and over, my expectations have been confounded. Things I've not expected to be good have turned out to be at least fun.The epic Planet of the Apes watch has been, generally, a delight.

Well, that streak is comprehensively broken. Tim Burton's 2001 Planet of the Apes reboot is worse than I could have imagined. It's a bad remake, a bad sequel, and a bad movie on its own terms.

Look. I don't have any patience with the idea that the original movie is some sacrosanct artefact to be respected and put in a glass case. Remake movies if you want, reboot them, tear it all up. Occasionally remakes and reboots are even worth your while, as we shall see. But not this time. Not this time.

God help me, to write this, I watched it twice. Don't pity me. This is my own stupid fault.

But you'd better read this.

I did this for you, you ungrateful bastards.

This will have repercussions. Count on it.
It's a Madhouse, a Madhouse
So there's this research station starship out in Deep Space, and it's called the Oberon, and they're training apes to fly spaceships. Because why the hell not, am I right?

One of the trainers, Leo Davidson (Mark “Marky Mark” Wahlberg), whose ambivalent relationship with the apes is established early on (“Never send a monkey to do a man's work,” he says) nonetheless risks his life to retrieve a chimp named Pericles. Pericles’ capsule flew into a big Space  Storm Anomaly Thing and vanished, you see.And of course he disappears into it too.

One might think that the whole point of sending chimps out in space ships is so that stuff like this doesn't happen, but whatever.

Leo flies through the Space Storm Anomaly Thing and winds up crashing into a lake on a forested planet. He clambers out of the lake and like ten seconds later finds himself swept up by a load of ragged people running from shrieking, leaping apes, and he gets captured, and sold. He makes friends with a Hot Blonde called Daena (Estella Warren) and her dad Karubi (Kris Kristofferson) and escapes with the help of an inexplicably and disturbingly attractive chimp and human rights campaigner called Ari (Helena Bonham-Carter), along with a motley band: some other nondescript humans; a grumpy but sympathetic gorilla called Krull (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa); and for some reason Limbo, the slave dealer who sold him (Paul Giamatti). They're pursued by human-hating General Thade (Tim Roth) and his friend and sidekick Attar (Michael Clarke Duncan).

Thade knows that humans once had the upper hand, mainly because his dad (Charlton Heston) tells him, and gives him a gun, because, hell, I don't know. Then Thade’s dad ups and dies, because I guess he'd rather die than be in this movie anymore, and Thade is sad about that.
It was not hard to find a picture of Wahlberg scowling, surprisingly.
Some stuff happens that I've already forgotten even though I've watched the damn thing twice over, and eventually even though Leo spends the whole film scowling and whining about finding his spaceship so he can shoot off, everyone is like, “No, you must be our leader!” and he's like, “Do I have to?” and they're like, “Yeah,” and he's like, “Oh, OK, if I absolutely must.”

Anyway, Leo finds the crashed Oberon, which landed here thousands of years ago because the Big Space Storm Anomaly Thing was in fact a Big Space Storm Time Warpy Anomaly Thing. The inhabitants of this planet are all the descendents of the humans and apes who survived the crash of the Oberon, which only wound up flying into the Big Space Storm Time Warpy Anomaly Thing because they were looking for him. So it's all Leo's fault.

Nice one, Leo.

All of this leads to all sort of icky questions about viable populations, and where the hell the horses they ride around on even came from, but I find it hard to care by this point, so whatever. Anyway, the apes, already smart, got smarter and took over, and I suppose the actual takeaway is that this is what you get when you teach chimps to fly spaceships but still keep them in cages rather than let them eat lunch with you and stuff.

But we don't have time to explore this further, thank God, because somehow there's this pitched battle between humans and those few friendly apes on the one hand and General Thade’s gang on the other.

There's a big fight and some characters we don't care about wind up dead. And then it stops in its tracks when Pericles lands in his pod, alive and well, right in the middle of the big fight, because of course it does, and all the apes bow down and worship him because they think he's their ape messiah, and everyone becomes pals except Thade who gets trapped in the wreckage of the Oberon and just left there.

Leo hops into the pod, and, being a heel, abandons Hot Blonde and Disturbingly Hot Chimp, both of whom are implicitly offering Sweet Monkey Love. Oblivious to this, he's off to Earth. But on earth he discovers that the Lincoln Memorial is now a monument to General Thade, who somehow got here a century or more ago and changed history so the apes got smart and took over, and everyone on Earth is an ape.
Wait. What?

Take Your Stinking Paws Off Me
In and of itself, this doesn't sound like a terrible film.

OK, it sounds like a terrible film.

But it also sounds like it might be a fun film, a piece of silly popcorn fluff, a fun way to spend a couple of hours. I mean, one post ago, I was extolling the virtues of an iteration of Planet of the Apes that ended up with the Wise Mountain Apes thawing out King Kong to battle a Pterodactyl Thing so our heroes could change the world with a kids’ book about a zoo, so you should already be aware that I'm not averse to silliness.

But the 2001 Planet of the Apes isn't fun at all. It's stupid and thoughtless and empty, and worst of all, it's cynical. This is a film where they took all this genuine talent – Helena Bonham-Carter, David Warner, Paul Giamatti, Michael Clarke Duncan, Kris Kristofferson, Burton himself – and everyone wound up so exhausted at the end they thought, “Oh, fuck it, this’ll do.”

This is a film made by the man who made genuinely great films like Beetlejuice (1988), Batman Returns (1992), and Ed Wood (1994), and these are films with a strong guiding hand, and a clearly defined aesthetic. They are made of candy and decay. They are made with twisted, co-dependent love. But where is the love in Planet of the Apes? Where did the sugar-frosted gravestones go? Whence the Halloween candy canes? The ending perhaps is the only properly Burtonesque part of the whole thing, but it's out of step with the rest of the film, as if there's something missing there, some piece of the puzzle to make it fit, (and more of that later on, God help me, with diagrams and everything).

I don't know what was going through the mind of Tim Burton when he made this film, but I suspect quite strongly that he was not having a great deal of fun making it. You can see when there's joy in a movie, even a bad one. There is no joy here. It bears a whiff of contractual obligation as much as anything.

Nobody making this film really cared about it. So why should we?

It's just a franchise movie.
Wasted, I tell you.
Attar: Take your stinking hands off me, you damn dirty human!
When Attar says that, Leo, semi conscious, has reached out and touched the gorilla’s foot. And it's such a ridiculous thing to say. But of course, it's a reference, isn't it? It is literally only there to make people who saw the original movie smile and go, “Hey, I remember that line.” It's a blatant attempt to pander to the worst sort of nerd, the sort of fan who thinks that simply repeating a phrase from a media property without context or subtext is funny. I remember that this one terrible nerd forum I often rag on that had, for a while, a fashion for posters to respond to images of attractive people “I'll be in my bunk,” which is horrible enough if you haven't seen Firefly, and about five times worse if you have seen Firefly and you're in possession of the most basically intact critical faculties. The forum, to its rare credit, cracked down on that, thankfully, but God damn the world we live in. God damn you all to hell.

It feels as if the script of Burton's film got into the hands of the same sort of nerd, as if it was written for the exact sort of person who implies they're off to masturbate with a Firefly quote; and of course, as so many examples in the media so unequivocally prove, that's always the best way to get a backlash, for as devoid of critical faculties this sort of fan so often is, these people still instinctively know when someone is trying to exploit them.

And the references, of which so many spontaneously arise like the green rosettes of mould floating on the contents of a teapot you forgot to empty before going on holiday, just sit there, occasionally puffing out spores. There's no reason for Chuck Heston even to be here, except that he gets to cry out, “Damn them! Damn them all to hell!” And there's no reason for him even to say it except that it's Chuck Heston saying it – and that's not just pointless, it's recursively pointless.
Recursively pointless.
And then there's Lisa Marie, in her last role in a Tim Burton film (or in anything else for a decade) who cameos as the Disturbingly Hot Chimp trophy wife of an aged orangutan grandee. And she's called Nova. Because you have to have a character called Nova, right? Because Lisa Marie has to appear in a Tim Burton film being sexy-weird (see Sleepy Hollow (1999), Mars Attacks (1996), Ed Wood). Until she doesn't. And we might as well call her something referential anyway. Just to hammer the point in.

But You're So Damned Ugly
Listen, I hate to break it to you, but Linda Harrison’s turn as Nova in the original two Planet of the Apes movies is not a high point of American cinema in terms of female representation. She's a fantasy figure, the Sexy Cavegirl who tags along, docile and compliant, who is nonetheless implied to be an animal where it Really Counts (nudge, wink, rawr, etc). You can tell she's a Sexy Cavegirl because she's dressed in a couple of pieces of chamois leather and has some fetching smudges of dirt on her nose, even though her eyebrows are absolutely on point.
Pictured: chamois leather, on point eyebrows.
Still, our original Nova has personality. She's given time on screen, and other characters pay attention to her. She has a function in the story, especially in the second movie, enough that if Nova wasn't there, it would detract, it would shift the heart of it. Nova is the mute, uncomprehending witness, who is there to show us just how futile Taylor’s reaction to finding the Statue of Liberty is. OK, she's a Sexy Cavegirl, but she's a memorable Sexy Cavegirl, and surely that counts for something, right?

Estella Warren, on the other hand, is there in Burton's film to fulfil roughly the same role as the original Nova, but her character's traits are these:
  1. Hot;
  2. Blonde;
  3. No, seriously, that's it.
Estella Warren is here to be Hollywood Beautiful, and absolutely nothing more. I watched this film twice and I still had to go back to the IMDB to find out what her character was called, because she doesn't matter. And that's not Estella Warren’s fault. No one could make that part work. It's not even a part, really. She's just there to pout, and pose, and be looked at. She is made an object. Set dressing.

I mean she got paid a lot of money to be in this movie, but I still feel sort of sorry for Estella Warren. 
Pictured: set dressing.
The female ape characters, of whom there are two, Ari and Nova, are also sexualised. It is easy to descend to gossip and point out the coincidental fact that Burton apparently asked the make up designer, Rick Baker, to ensure that Ari and Nova were still hot, despite being chimps, and that they were played by Burton's new partner and current (soon-to-be-ex) partner respectively (another coincidence: the soon-to-be-ex-partner stopped acting in films for a decade after this).

And it's really tempting to suggest that personal upheavals in Tim Burton's life might have taken the man's eye off the wheel directionwise, but I'd have to ask Tim Burton about that, and I can predict with certainty that in the infinitesimally likely circumstance that I would get to ask Tim Burton about this, Tim Burton would tell me to fuck right off, because that's none of my business, and frankly he'd be right to.
Well, this is awkward.
It's probably rubbish anyway.

So let's just stick to observing that the prominent female apes are sexualised, and that this is weird, and icky, and off, and doubly so when it is implied, strongly, repeatedly that Ari fancies Leo. Playmate of the Apes, indeed.

Which reminds me. I saw a copy of the 2002 soft porn spoof Play-Mate of the Apes in the local CEX the other week, and considered for the briefest moment picking it up before coming to my senses and moving right on and buying a copy of Jennifer's Body instead (because there are worse things than Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes, Misty Mundae or no Misty Mundae).
I dodged a bullet, frankly.
But! Look at the pervy ape on the cover (who Google assures me is called “Cornholeus”). She looks like Ari and Nova in the Burton film. The makers of Play-Mate of the Apes totally realised that the time was right (inasmuch as – ewww – it ever could be right) for a porno spoof of Planet of the Apes because Tim Burton made it possible. Tim Burton made chimps sexy.

Goddammit, Tim Burton.
Well, at least the orangutan looks like an actual orangutan.
Aside from the Disturbingly Hot Chimp Women, the rest of the ape makeup – and the realisation of the apes generally – is excellent. The makeup on the gorillas especially is great; Thade is great, the orangutans look like actual orangutans (which, honestly, is a makeup effect six much better Planet of the Apes iterations couldn’t nail). OK, David Warner, Playing Ari’s dad, looks like David Warner, Only a Chimp, but on the whole, the apes look good. And the movement is good. They’re apey. They whoop and shriek, they hang from ceilings, they leap, they write with their feet.

But “Some of the ape makeup and movement is really very good” is not enough to make this film work. It’s not enough to make the plot hang together.

And it’s not enough to excuse the ending.

Ape Shall Not Kill Abe
People keep saying that the Burton film has an ending closer to the Pierre Boulle ending, but that's only true in the most superficial terms. Throughout Pierre Boulle’s original novel, Ulysse Mérou is subject to the growing apprehension that the reason the Planet of the Apes exists at all is because the humans blew it and the Apes, getting smart, took over. He becomes more and more fearful that this might happen on Earth, and eventually fixes his spaceship and hightails it back, hoping to warn the human race of its fate. And of course he forgets that by the time he's returned, 1400 years have passed, and he finds he's too late, and the first person to meet him is a gorilla in a uniform, because the apes have indeed gotten smart and supplanted the human race. In the coda, set further in the future still, we discover that the holidaying starfarers who have read Mérou’s narrative are themselves chimps, and they laugh at the absurdity of a human travelling through the stars, writing a journal or even having conscious thought.

In Boulle’s novel, consciousness and animalism are contagious states. You hang out with animals, you become an animal; you commune with the civilised, you become civilised.

Pierre Boulle clearly never met my dog.

But that theme, of consciousness naturally spreading (or not, or only appearing to do so in the eyes of an imperceptive protagonist) is the heart of the book. It's, hell, I don't know, the sticky white and yellow goop in the narrative Creme Egg.

The ending of Burton's film has the chocolate shell, but none of the sticky sugary goodness inside it.

Here, Leo Davidson, a heel, abandons the Hot Blonde and the Disturbingly Hot Chimp, and takes the capsule Pericles came in – the short-trip lander capsule – back through the time warp to Earth.

And he arrives in Washington DC, and decides to walk into the Lincoln Memorial for some reason. I dunno, maybe he thinks that since he's here he'll get a bit of tourism in or something.

I'm just being obtuse. We know the reason: it's so that we the viewers can see that Abe Lincoln is gone, and in his place sits Ape Lincoln. Contrary to the precept set in Battle for the Planet of the Apes, Ape has indeed killed Abe.
I mean, for crying out loud.
The camera zooms in closer: the inscription says that the liberator is in fact General Thade. He got here first; the apes got smart and took over.

Leo, wearing the same dazed expression he has had on his face for most of the film, staggers outside to be met by a crowd of ape police, ape press and ape bystanders, who, reasonably, want to know exactly why there's a starship in front of a tourist attraction. The film ends.

What the hell?

Wait. Listen. Let's do this.

This ending, while appearing utterly nonsensical, does actually make some sense. I mean it doesn't entirely make sense. It's stupid as hell, even if you do get the rationales. But the tools to make what limited sense of it we can are in the film. They're just not remotely obvious enough. 

For a twist to land, a film has to give you enough so that there's a reasonable chance of working it out yourself beforehand, and that's one of the pleasures of watching, the puzzle, so that when the moment arrives, your reaction is either to slap your forehead theatrically and cry, “Of course! I see it all now!” or to smugly settle into your seat and say, “Yep, called it,” and then duck when everyone else chucks their popcorn at you because you’re a jerk. Or some variation of one of those two reactions. Some movies even give you little flashbacks of the clues, so you don't miss what just happened, which is infuriating, but again, at least amounts to the cinematic equivalent of showing your workings.

The consistent problem that Burton's Planet of the Apes has, however, is that its important revelations are undersignified – so for instance, we don't get any buildup to the revelation of the apes: Leo lands in a lake, walks through a forest, and ten seconds later gets tangled up with humans running away from apes, and the apes are badly undersold. The intention is that they're gradually revealed, but it doesn't work.

The film is chaotic, and messy, and it's hard to see what's happening, and this is doubly depressing from a director like Burton, whose entire schtick supposedly depends on the visual force of his films. The music, too, is all utterly standard action movie orchestra music, just urgent strings and booming drums, without any feel for the sort of movie we're watching, and there's no occasion to it, no sense that this matters. And that’s weird, because it’s Danny Elfman, who does all of Burton’s soundtracks, and it sounds as much like a Danny Elfman soundtrack as this looks like a Tim Burton film: not a whole lot.
Ape sexual harassment.
This happens over and over. Important characters and concepts – important good guys, the idea that the chimps from the starship are super-smart and a little uplifted – get cursory, throwaway introductions. And while the information necessary to understand what the hell happened at the end really is (mostly) present, it's buried. You need to watch the film closely to get it, and Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes is not a film that is made to be watched closely, let alone one that really deserves diagrams that explain the plot.

But it doesn't deserve several thousand words of serious critical writing either, and it's getting that, so what the fuck, let's go for broke here.

OK, so the key is in the Space Storm Time Warpy Anomaly Thing that you have to fly through to get to the Planet of the Apes: it both extends and reverses time. What goes into the anomaly comes out in the opposite order and further apart.

So. Here’s Figure 1.
As we can see, Pericles the Chimp enters the anomaly first. He's followed shortly after by Marky Mark. Some time after that, the Oberon goes in looking for them.

But the Oberon, last in, is first out, thousands of years before Marky Mark (1), because those few days or however long it is, turn into thousands of years. He arrives in the middle of what he discovers is the civilisation founded by the survivors of the Oberon, which means all this mess is his fault, but by this point it's hard to care about that, so whatever. He's there for an amount of time we will express as “two thirds of a bad movie” (2).

Pericles, presumably having only been in the Space Storm Time Warpy Anomaly Thing for only a couple of minutes, arrives in the middle of the Big Climactic Battle (3) and the apes get all messianic which should be a big emotional payoff but as I mentioned it's hard to care, so whatever.

OK. Got that? Now. It follows that the anomaly works the same both ways. Cue Figure 2.
So Marky Mark leaves and goes back to Earth. In a small capsule that's presumably just a lander, but as I keep saying, it's hard to care by this point, so whatever.

Now here's the part where the movie really should have made some sort of gesture to making this work. A scene where the assembled apes and people are watching him go, and suddenly there's an earthquakey rumble and the Oberon takes off out of the ground, or a scene with Thade alone in the control room he winds up trapped in, pressing buttons and something fires up, or anything really. I mean, OK, I really hate it when schmucks on the Internet tell you they know how to write your film scripts better than you do, because you quickly get to the nonsense they got to with The Last Jedi. And no one wants that except smelly fellas with hats who really will never know the consolation of human affection. Still. Just go with me and accept this.

Because the point is that Thade, or as I prefer to think of him now, “Chimp Roth” – some time after Marky Mark, a heel, abandons Hot Blonde and Disturbingly Hot Chimp, and flies off – gets the Oberon working and flies off in pursuit, presumably in revenge. And because some time has passed, he leaves the Space Storm Time Warpy Anomaly Thing way before Marky Mark does and arrives on Earth first (1). And so, by the time Marky Mark gets there (2), Earth is now also the Planet of the Apes.
But here's an ape applying deodorant, so.
And Thade somehow led the apes to rise up and take over, and got them to be smart enough to do that and talk and stuff too, and gets to be Ape-raham Lincoln, and I have no clue how the hell he swung that, but frankly there's only so much sense you're ever going to get out of this movie, and you need to be grateful I've got this far with it.

Because I watched this bastard closely, twice, before I got this, and deciphering movies is a thing I do, and if you need a film like this to be explained in this much detail, a film that's supposedly a big Family Popcorn Franchise Blockbuster, something is very wrong with the film.

Damn You All to Hell
OK, listen, when writing about 4000 words of text dumping scorn onto a film is significantly more entertaining (to me) than actually watching the bloody film, something is Very Wrong.

Burton’s Planet of the Apes doesn’t fit with other Tim Burton movies, because it's lacking that feel that his films have, that aesthetic. And it doesn't fit with the other Planet of the Apes movies, having no really focussed warning, no moral force. OK, perversity is a hallmark of the Planet of the Apes series, but… no, not that sort of perversity, Tim. Weirdness only works in its own context. Perhaps if Burton had gone for broke and given it the full-on candy-canes-and-graveyards Tim Burton aesthetic, if Danny Elfman had let rip with the woo-oo choral arrangements and the spooky-ooky strings, rather than the both of them just phoning it in, maybe it would have been a better film, and maybe the sexualisation of the chimps would have fit with Burton’s weird psychosexual preoccupations, maybe it could have been wild and hairy and strange. But it’s not strange. Not in the right ways. It's just... dull and stupid and loud and empty and at times icky and uncomfortable, in bad ways. It's joyless. Phoned in.
Hello? Is there a soul in there?
Even taking into account the Disturbingly Hot Ape Women, even taking into account that stupid ending, that stupid ending which is nonetheless the single best part of the whole damn movie because at least it tries to do something interesting, Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes is mainly boring. It doesn’t have a sense of occasion, it doesn’t build up to things, it doesn’t have any sense of being big, or important, or of saying anything. It’s just a shaggy ape story. It’s a mess.

It is a bad movie.

Surely after this, it's time to give up. Surely this proves that there's no point in trying this anymore.

Surely nothing could redeem the series after this. Right?


Ape Rankings
1. Planet of the Apes (1968)
2. Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971)
3. Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)
4. Return to the Planet of the Apes (1975)
5. Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)
6. Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973) 
7. Planet of the Apes: the TV Series (1974)
12. Planet of the Apes (2001)

2 comments:

  1. You managed to put into words why Tim Burtons film is so epicly awful, which is quite an achievement, I am thankful that I didn't need to endure it twice.
    I also agree with your rankings list with one notable exception. No 7 POTA TV series should, in my opinion, be placed at No. 4, but perhaps that is because it was the first Planet of the Apes I saw way back when it was first transmitted on UK TV. The Trap is a classic. How you can place Return above the TV series is a complete mystery, perhaps I need to search for a link and rewatch the generally inanimate animation to understand.

    ReplyDelete
  2. So having just remembered I bookmarked this to read later, and have now read it... After it came out, Tim Burton's been pretty open about the fact that he was forced to make this film due to contractual requirements. He had to do so many films for them, and kept passing on the crappy blockbusters until they said 'look, you owe us this.' Then they cut the budget, rushed him on production, and he just wanted to get it over with. (Also, apparently, Roth really hated working with Heston and has said he'd have never signed onto the movie if he knew he'd be doing so.) I haven't heard it myself, but apparently the director's commentary on the DVD is just Burton apologizing over and over.

    ReplyDelete

Comment moderation is back on because harassment and frankly this is why you can't have nice things.