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Monkey Business



Planet of the Apes (PG-13)
20th Century Fox

For about ten seconds, when Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes opened last week, it seemed that the pessimistic dread that most people intuited about the movie was unfounded. But then it happened. Crowds squeezed into sold-out cinemas all over the country only to report that the movie was much worse than they could ever have imagined. Due mainly to a script that doesn't even bother to go through the motions of telling a story, any semblance of the original film's ham-fisted barbs about slavery, racism and class consciousness are lost like so many syllables evaporating from Charlton Heston's soiled mouth.

Perhaps the gravest transgression of the new unimproved Planet of the Apes is the missing dark gothic signature stamp of its director. Tim Burton's filmmaking career has been built on outside characters -- think Pee Wee Herman, Batman, Edward Scissorhands and even the Johnny Depp character in Sleepy Hollow. But it's been Burton's canny ability to offset his unique characters' specific earmarks of weirdness against their hostile environments. In these caustic atmospheres Burton has radiated glory from the depths of darkness inside lush but lonely worlds. For a young filmmaker who started out as an animator for Disney and went on to become a self-styled director of gothic fantasy in mainstream movies, it's particularly discouraging to see Burton's influence wither under the weight of a propped-up doomed blockbuster.

Instead of four astronauts getting stranded on an ape-inhabited planet, as happened in the original movie, this time it's Mark Wahlberg as Capt. Leo Davidson who must carry the burden of human intellectual weight. Our clever and handsome white astronaut crash lands on a planet filled mainly with dumb vile apes, but has difficulty putting his superior intellect to use in escaping the sword wielding simians led by General Thade (Tim Roth), a manic monkey with a Napoleonic complex. With escape for himself as his main goal, Capt. Davidson leads a small group of apes and humans, which includes a sympathetic if lusty simian named Ari (Helena Bonham Carter). Daena (Estella Warren) is a model quality human female who thinks she likes the inscrutable astronaut. Between Ari's inexplicable British accent (except to emphasize that it's Helena Bonham Carter under that impressive monkey suit) and Warren's vacuous stares, it's no wonder that Leo isn't the least bit interested in either one of the females who vie for his attention. When our hero gives a lip peck to Ari, it feels like a patronizing act because anything more would be, well, bestiality.

It's shocking how little work the three credited screenwriters on Planet put into a movie that amounts to one long chase sequence. Some hesitant praise is due to make-up designer Rick Baker for creating a convincing collection of monkey masks that gave the actors something to hide behind while speaking cardboard dialogue. But it's Tim Roth's spastic characterization as the angry and vengeful General Thade that stands out as the only redeeming element in the movie. Roth pushes every simian sniff and grunt far beyond the actions of the lesser apes he commands, thereby centering Thade's authority in his species' primal instincts.

The Planet of the Apes ends with a quickly arrived at, stuck-on ending that's meant to shock as much as the original film's tableau of the Statue of Liberty tilting from the surface of the ocean. Unfortunately, the revised spectacle is emphatically smaller in scale and is telegraphed so that 10-year-olds in the audience are shouting out their accurate predictions seconds before the revelation occurs.

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