lTim Burton’s “Planet of the Apes” is less a remake than a re-imagining of the classic staring Charlton Heston. This version has no loincloth and no Statue of Liberty, and no Roddy McDowell, but Heston does show up for a surprisingly effective cameo — as one of the apes.
Mark Wahlberg plays Leo, an officer in the United States Air Force, working on a space station in 2029. An exploratory aircraft piloted by a monkey disappears into a mysterious electrical field. Against the orders of his commanding officer, Leo follows it to find out what happened. The storm hurtles him through time and space until he crashes on a planet where apes rule and humans are slaves. Ari (Helena Bonham Carter) helps Leo and some of the others escape to a forbidden city that will reveal some of the planet’s history. But General Thade (Tim Roth) and his army are in pursuit with orders to destroy them. As Burton promised in interviews, this version does not use the now-famous ending in the first film that showed them the planet they had landed on was Earth. This one ends with a twist that may even top it.
As in all of Burton’s movies, including “Beetlejuice” and “Edward Scissorhands,” the art direction is intricate, meticulous, and strangely beautiful. Every detail is a work of art, from the texture of the ape armor to the outline of the spaceship.
Wahlberg makes an appealing, all-American hero, though he is not up to the task of delivering a brief pep talk to the assembled humans. He is no Kenneth Branaugh in “Henry V.” He is not even Bill Pullman in “Independence Day.” But he is fine in the action scenes and he handles the challenge of kissing females of two different species with reasonable finesse. Overall, the simian performers are better and more believable than the humans. Bonham Carter makes a remarkably fetching ape, flirting through her bangs and using her eyes and body language to deliver a real performance. She has far more range of expression than Estella Warren (of “Driven”) as a feisty human in a costume that seems left over from Raquel Welch in “One Million B.C.” Roth is a seething presence as the bad guy, Michael Clarke Duncan gives physical and emotional weight to the role of the loyal officer, and Paul Giametti is hilarious as a slave trader held hostage.
Parents should know that the movie features intense and prolonged peril, a great deal of violence, and many deaths, including characters we care about. Characters are beaten and branded. There is a brief mild sexual situation and some strong language.
Families who see this movie should talk about the way that Burton makes unabashedly clear the parallels between the views of the apes toward humans and the views of racists and other bigots on Earth. Like those who have argued for segregation, apartheid, genocide, and “ethnic cleansing,” the apes find justification for their oppression of humans by insisting that humans are inferior creatures who have no souls or by demonizing them. The apes seem to have no problem with sub-species distinctions, and different kinds of apes work and socialize without any distinctions.
Families who enjoy this movie should see the original and some of its sequels to compare them. They, too, served as a metaphor for racial divides in an era in which it was much easier to put some of the dialogue about equal rights and revolution into the mouths of apes than people. They should also read Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn, a stunning book about a wise ape who teaches his human pupil to think about the world in a completely different way. I promise, when you are done with the book, you will do the same.