Planet of the Apes is the last hope for the season of summer blockbusters. Pearl Harbor and A.I. didn’t cut it artistically, and whether or not Jurassic Park III is any good is irrelevant—two go-rounds with computer-generated prehistoric carnivores was enough. So it’s a great relief that Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes is worth watching. While it’s unlikely to become a cult classic like its 1968 predecessor, which spawned four sequels and numerous pop-culture references, the new film does provide close to two hours of knockout visuals and a bit of original storytelling.
The year is 2029, and our hero, Capt. Leo Davidson (Mark Wahlberg), is stationed on an intergalactic craft somewhere in the cosmos, training a monkey for test flights to new planets. This space cowboy would much rather be exploring other worlds him-
self, and when his monkey’s pod gets lost in another planet’s electromagnetic field, Leo disobeys orders and blasts off. His prescient parting words: “Never send a monkey to do a man’s job.”
Leo crashes into the jungle of an unfamiliar planet, right in the middle of human-hunting season. Along with his newfound human allies—including a father-and-daughter team played by Kris Kristofferson and Canadian synchronized swimmerturned-supermodel Estella Warren—he is attacked by apes. In this terrifying sequence, adults are mauled and wrangled into cages, and children are snatched up by what seem like direct descendants of The Wizard ofOzs flying monkeys.
Back in ape city, a Gothic Burtonesque locale, the simians will sell their captives as slaves or pets. The evolved apes are appalled by the smell and appearance of humans, and are scared of their
primordial nature. Much more so than in the original movie, this reverse of the usual man-monkey relationship prompts the characters to comment on social issues including animal rights, immigration, segregation, evolutionary science and the inherent cruelty of man—and beast. The cruellest of all is Thade, a chimpanzee and vicious army commander played by Tim Roth.
Although he can talk, Thade is more effectively frightening when he snorts, roars, snivels and growls. Michael Clarke Duncan (The Green Mile) is Attar, a deeply religious gorilla and Thade’s right-hand thug. Duncan fills out the ape suit regally and possesses a fierce battle cry, but his deep voice is too distinctive—its hard not to picture the larger-than-life actor under the hairy costume.
Add a fancy hat and haughty accent to Ari, the she-ape played by Helena Bonham Carter, and she could almost pass as one of the upper-class British ladies Carter is famous for portraying.
The daughter of a powerful senator, Ari is a sophisticated, politically astute human-rights activist who reasons, heretically, that humans have a soul. For all her book smarts and her bleeding heart, Ari can hang with the best of her breed, swooping from branches and leaping into the air when agility is required to outsmart her opponents. All this and she’s a flirt, too.
Planet of the Apes will be the season’s most memorable blockbuster, but the quirky, poignant Ghost World is much more satisfying fare
Ari is romantically unattached and may be open to the possibility of interspecies love. She helps Leo and friends escape to the forbidden zone, which holds Leo’s spaceship and the secret of how apes came to rule the planet—a different and arguably better explanation than the one given in the first film. Thade goes bananas trying to protect the secret, waging an all-out war against the humans. And then comes the surprise ending.
Since beginning production,
Burton insisted that his ending (the script was written by William
Broyles Jr., Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal) would be different from the original film’s—and in fact, his is closer to the conclusion of Pierre Boulle’s 1963 novel, upon which both movies are based. But it doesn’t exactly make sense, and the director has hinted a sequel will clear things up.
As for the pivotal character, Wahlberg’s Leo is a sensitive renegade who possesses none of the cynicism and over-the-top arrogance of Charlton Heston’s Taylor from the 1968 version. Wahlberg is confident and commanding in the role, but for some reason the filmmakers neglected to capitalize on his greatest asset—his abs. In a film where a loincloth is completely jus-
tifiable, and which has Warren baring a lot of highly toned flesh, the former underwear model wears a space suit the entire time. This planet, like ours, does not appear to be a place of equal-opportunity exploitation.
lthough Planet will be the season’s most memorable blockbuster, the modest independent feature Ghost World is much more satisfying. Based on a comic book, this is the hilariously hypnotic tale of two disillusioned oddball teenage girls in Los Angeles who have just finished high school. Enid (Thora Birch) and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) are the class outcasts—by choice. They are the only ones who understand the absurdity of secondary education, embodied in their Dunkin’ Donuts-sponsored graduation. And at the year-end party, they ignore any classmates who try to engage them, targeting their witticisms at the cheesy lounge-type band singing Where Is the Love?
On an average day, Rebecca and Enid wander the city observing, and at times stalking, any freaks they find: a guy with a tanktop tan line and mullet haircut who hangs around the convenience store; an old man waiting for a bus that never comes; a couple Enid thinks are Satanists; and Seymour, a middle-aged geek on whom the girls play an awful practical joke.
Birch, who played Kevin Spacey’s insolent daughter in American Beauty, and Johansson, the traumatized girl of The Horse Whisperer, both convey the right mix of adolescent cynicism and self-consciousness. Their characters start to grow apart when Rebecca wants to get a job and an apartment and move away from all the weirdos. Meanwhile, Enid begins hanging out with Seymour (Steve Buscemi), explaining to a confused Rebecca: “He’s the exact opposite of everything I hate. He’s such a dork, he’s almost cool.” Enid realizes that she herself is probably a weirdo, too.
It’s fascinating how uncreepy Enid and Seymour’s friendship and growing sexual attraction seem. While in past roles Buscemi has perfected a greasy, lecherous persona, as Seymour he’s completely unthreatening, genuine and, yes, cool in his dorky obsession with 78-r.p.m. country-blues recordings.
The film was directed by Terry Zwigoff, who made Crumb, the acclaimed documentary about iconoclast cartoonist Robert Crumb and his spectacularly dysfunctional family. In both films Zwigoff shows empathy for outsiders. The same has been said of Tim Burton, whose Batman, Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood all reveal the pain of being different. With Planet of the Apes, Burton broadens his scope, turning the entire human race into persecuted outsiders. By keeping things small scale, turning a couple of pencil-drawn misfits into funny, engaging characters, Ghost World achieves a poignancy that Burton has left behind. GD
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