In 2001, making a sequel to a blockbuster movie was already well established. Creating a reboot of a classic was a novelty. For many years, Hollywood had toyed with the idea of resuming The Planet of the Apes by Franklin Schaffner, which had originated four sequels and had entered the collective and cinematographic imagination. Since the 80s, after the end of the first saga, the idea of resuming the story of the first film and continuing it ignoring the following films began to be cherished. An endless series of hardships blocked its development for years. Peter Jackson, Oliver Stone, Sam Raimi are just some of the directors who, in twenty years, have tried to propose their “updated” version.
Among all these, Tim Burton managed to come out the winner in the late 90s. He put his hand to the novel The Planet of the Apes by Pierre Boulle and the 1968 film. When Planet of the Apes – Planet of the Apes arrived in Italy 20 years ago, on September 14, 2001, no words like reboot or remake had crept into the common language. At a loss for words, Burton told the press about his film as a reimagination. A very respectful operation in some ways, clearly indebted to a well-established imagination, but also profoundly betraying the original spirit.
In 2029, humanity is investing large resources in space travel. They train chimps for test missions to new frontiers. In the unwitting role of the explorer of the unknown, we will find Leo Davidson, an astronaut hit by an electromagnetic storm who is catapulted into a mysterious elsewhere. After a devastating landing, he is greeted by highly intelligent monkeys. Captured and mistreated, he realizes he is on a planet where humans are slaves, bargains and “pets” of the monkeys who rule society.
The film comes at a time when, roughly, Tim Burton was still Tim Burton. But his Planet of the Apes it looks more like an operation “Corporate” which is the result of an authorial thought. Especially considering that normally the director, by expressionist inclination and passion, could have made this dystopian world a daydream interwoven with psychoanalysis and freaks. Instead the outcome is just a comedy, mixed with science fiction, peppered with action, and embellished with special effects and cute costumes. In short, a smoothie, whose atmosphere is more similar to the sitcom The Dinosaurs than to a blockbuster with a subversive and political inspiration.
Incredibly Tim Burton flattens everything he can.
It seems that he thought the whole film trying to solve the problem of the sensational final twist, now well known to the general public, and find his own way to amaze. As interesting as it is, the debate on the new ending diverts attention from the real problem of Planet of the Apes – Planet of the Apes. That is, it is a preaching film, simple and simplistic.
It doesn’t help his fame that he arrived a few days after 9/11. In weeks when politics, the events of history, unfolded on live television for all to see, the film’s unfortunate timing gave it the coup de grace. Let’s be clear: not from a box office point of view, since the film was a great success, capable of recovering three times the production budget. The disappointment was all in the wasted opportunity to readjust, or rather reimagine, political issues that are still very relevant today. In those rounds (and for the following decade) they were even more heated.
Of course, 2001 wasn’t 1968, and it shows. Yet the intertwining between human and inhuman and inhuman could still have found meaning, if the film did not possess a critical capacity worthy of a theme developed in the fifth year of primary school. Even worse: The Planet of the Apes by Tim Burton has a terrible desire to make us shake our heads between one action scene and another. He begs the viewer to think about how cruel man is and how much the animal world must be respected. Why, look, when we are treated like the last then we understand their point of view!
What a bad way to throw away an imaginary. What laziness of thought to be alone on the surface of everything that could have been said at the beginning of the millennium. Tim Burton reimagines a parable. A moral story that wants to teach, change, convert. Never once does it provoke. Try to be so family-friendly that you forget that even productions for everyone can be unsettling, or work on multiple levels of understanding.
Mark Wahlberg as an alternative to Charlton Heston wasn’t a great idea in itself. In fact, he can’t handle the even slight dramatic weight, limiting the performance to a single astonished face. However, he is joined by a very respectable cast that includes Tim Roth, Helena Bonham Carter, Michael Clarke Duncan and Paul Giamatti totally wasted. We are still a long way from Dawn of the Planet of the Apes by Rupert Wyatt, where the movements and gestures of the monkeys were the result of identification and study. Tim Burton instead makes the actors, covered by the excellent Rick Baker masks, mimic the jumps and verses of the primates. Maybe it’s effective for kids’ amusement, but the grown-up can’t help but see a bunch of super-rich superstars jumping on all fours and beating Mark Wahlberg. Laughter guaranteed. Embarrassed.
Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes has a continuous sexual tension, even interspecies, in the background. Clearly mitigated by the PG-13, it could instead have been one of the originality levers of the project. In some ways the idea works, also connected to the vision of a planet that is much wilder and more violent than ours. The sex imagined by Burton is animalistic, primal, but also hidden as in any family film.
The point is, Tim Burton doesn’t disappear from the movie. He is present in jerks, but the courage and ideas of the first part of his career are administered in homeopathic doses. In shots like that of the monkeys in the foreground with the perspective background of the destroyed and sharpened plants, he alternates flat sequences, shot in the most conventional way possible. This uncertainty, like the jolts of a second-hand machine, castrates the film and throws it into a profound identity crisis.
20 years after the arrival of Planet of the Apes – Planet of the Apes the only work of reimagining is that of the spectator. Today, in fact, having dismissed the disappointment and embarrassment, we just have to think about how the film could have been if Tim Burton could have made Tim Burton.
Perhaps it had come too soon, at the very beginning of a long phase of radical geopolitical change. Or maybe it came too late: at a turning point for the director, whose creativity was losing its spikes, conforming to the much brighter and more compliant consumer products.