Saturday, February 09, 2013

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Land of the Lost: "Ancient Guardian"

Is it wrong to observe that as the third season winds down, the Marshalls in the Land of the Lost (1974 – 1977) are starting to seem increasingly unlikable? 

In “Ancient Guardian” for example, the family happens upon a strange Altrusian statue while out on a hike, and decides to take it down and bring it back to the temple for examination.

By removing the statue from its perch, the Marshalls unloose a hairy Yeti-like creature (though explicitly not the yeti-like creature seen in “The Abominable Snowman”) upon the Lost City.  The beast goes on a violent rampage three and in one scene breaks into the Sleestak nursery where it starts breaking and devouring the eggs of their young.

So, just because they were curious, the Marshalls initiated a chain of events that ends with the death of Sleestak young. 

If you were a Sleestak, wouldn’t you have a tough time getting past this particular incident?  If bad blood existed between the humans and Sleestaks in Altrusia before this episode, then certainly “Ancient Guardian” augments it.  And in point of fact, the Sleestak have a point this time around.

The worst part of this dynamic is that the Marshalls show no awareness what they have done, and don’t even apologize for the fact that their actions caused this problem.  Instead, as Will breaks into song one more time, Jack observes that maybe the Marshalls should leave things alone that they don’t understand.

You think?

This is a bizarre inversion of the Land of the Lost’s long-standing conceit that we all must be shepherds of the environment around us.  Previous seasons saw the Marshalls correcting imbalances and recognizing their role in the scheme of things.  Here, the breach is repaired, but the Marshalls show no remorse.  They caused a terrible, mortal imbalance, and it’s just, well, no big deal, right?  Jack, who dismisses Enik’s fears about the monster as “Sleestak Myth” certainly owes the Altrusian an apology.

The most enjoyable aspect of “Ancient Guardian” involves the nifty Altrusian statue itself. As the Marshalls learn, it is an Ancient relic and thus possessed of advanced technology. In particular, it harnesses and focuses solar energy so as to fire a heat beam at the valley where the monster lives, thus keeping it from journeying into the valley.  I always find Land of the Lost intriguing when aspects of Altrusian technology and civilization are revealed and explored.

What doesn’t work so well, again, is the depiction of Enik (Walker Edmiston).  Here, he calls the Yeti “the hairy monster,” or “the monster,” which just sounds ridiculous coming from someone of his advanced intellect.   Lines of dialogue like “The Monster Comes. It is the Hairy One,” are difficult to take seriously, and diminish Enik’s dignity.

And one has to wonder why Enik reveals such little curiosity regarding the inscriptions on the statue, since they originate directly from his culture.

Next week: “Scarab.”

Friday, February 08, 2013

Go Ape Day! Planet of the Apes movie trailers

Go Ape Day! Trading Card Close-Up

This trading card "close up" is # 59 in the Planet of the Apes TV series collection from 1974. There are sixty-six cards in this set, and this one serves as number six in puzzle # 1.

Anyway, I picked this particular card, featuring series villain General Urko, not just because I love the gorilla's hat (!), but because -- as the legend reads ---the great Mark Lenard essayed this role. I've always felt that Lenard is a true shining star of sci-fi actors. He passed away in 1996, but Lenard is one of the few actors in history to have played (in a featured, not extra capacity...) a Vulcan, Romulan and Klingon on Star Trek.

And that's just one achievement. In addition to his role as Sarek -- Spock's father -- in various Star Trek generations ("Journey to Babel," "Yesteryear," "The Search for Spock," "The Voyage Home," "The Undiscovered Country," "Sarek," and "Unification"), he made a (brilliant...) career of playing aliens or non-humans on other classic TV shows.

Planet of the Apes is probably Lenard's most memorable role, because he was so effective as the brutal simian General, yet Lenard also played an alien ambassador with a removable head (!) on Buck Rogers in the 25th Century ("Journey to Oasis"), the evil Emperor Thorval in the Cliffhangers (1979) segment "The Secret Empire" and a military ove rlord in an episode ("Zone Troopers Build Men") of Otherworld (1985).

Lenard guested on shows as diverse as Mission: Impossible, The Magician and The Incredible Hulk, and even had a role in the Woody Allen film Annie Hall.

So today, gazing upon the ape features of the evil General Urko, let's also remember the performer beneath the appliance and yak hair. Let's hear it for Mark Lenard. Just imagine if he were still around. It would have been amazing to see him on Stargate or Firefly or Farscape...

Go Ape Day! Planet of the Apes: The Series (1974)

In the fall of 1974, the Planet of the Apes film franchise moved to CBS network television for fourteen hour long episodes.

Planet of the Apes - the series - featured the continuing adventures of human astronauts Alan Virdon (Ron Harper) and Pete Burke (Jim Naughton), in the far-flung year of 3085 (starting March 21, 3085, if we're to believe the spaceship chronometer...) on a world run by intelligent, talking simians.

In "Escape from Tomorrow," the introductory episode written by Art Wallace and directed by Don Weis, we begin with an old man (in a bad wig) being pursued by a child chimpanzee and his pet dog in a rural setting.

My first thought watching this sequence was that it was a canon violation (alert! alert!), since Conquest of the Planet of the Apes had established that a space plague had arrived on Earth in the late 20th century and killed off all the cats and dogs. It was the death of "beloved pets," in fact, that led humans to enslave apes...which would then lead to the uprising of the gorillas, chimpanzees and orangutans. This fact seems like something that the producers of the series should have taken care to remember, since it is a lynch pin of apes continuity.  On the other hand, this sequence occurs a thousand years after the plague, so I suppose it is possible that "life has found a way," (to quote the Jurassic Park films), and dogs have re-entered the chain of life on Earth.

Putting aside this sloppy faux pas, the story continues as the old man hears a strange aircraft overhead and then finds the crash site of a spaceship in a nearby field. He rescues two astronauts (Virdon and Burke) but the third (Jones) is dead. When the shaken, disoriented astronauts awaken, the old man explains to the humans that apes rule this planet and that humans (who still have the power of speech here) are inferior underlings. Alan immediately wants to find a way to return home to his family (a wife and son). He recounts how the ship experienced radioactive turbulence near Alpha Centauri and he ordered Jones to activate the homing beacon. Burke is more defeatist. "This is home now, and you know it," he says. His words, however, carry a double meaning even he is not aware of.

After the Old Man presents the astronauts with a book of pictures from New York City in the year 2505 (another troublesome continuity point that contradicts the movies...), the astronauts realized that they have returned home indeed. That the planet of the Earth.

As the episode progresses, Alan and Pete meet Galen (Roddy McDowall) a friendly chimpanzee and member of the ape aristocracy who possesses many misconceptions about human beings, never having gotten to really know any. Worse, the astronauts face off with Urko (Mark Lenard), the chief security officer in Ape City who wants them dead. Now. Chief Counselor Zaius (Booth Colman) is willing to keep the astronauts alive, if only to learn of their technology and find a way to keep them from influencing the primitive humans of his world. Zaius is worried that the astronauts' love of freedom and independence will transfer to the indigenous humans and foster an uprising.

In this episode's scenes with Zaius and Urko, the writers accomplished something interesting and forward-thinking for episodic television in 1974. They began to develop - from this first episode - series mysteries that presumably would have been solved had the series lasted more than half-a-season. For instance, during a confidential tete-a-tete, Zaius asks Galen "did you ever have a recurring nightmare?" He then launches into a discussion of the fact that other human astronauts have arrived on the planet before (and again - it can't be the characters [like Taylor or Brent] we saw in the original films, because those events occurred in 3978...almost a thousand years after the events of the TV series).

"Another ship, Zaius," states Urko, "it's hard to believe." One can imagine that had the series lasted, viewers would have heard much more about these other astronauts and their (apparently-not-very-pleasant...) adventures on the planet of the apes. If that had been the case, the series would have been all the stronger for it.

"Escape from Tomorrow" ends with Virdon, Burke and Galen allied and on the run, while Ape forces destroy their spacecraft. Fortunately for the humans, Virdon has recovered a small magnetic computer disk from the ship which - if they can find a computer in this post apocalyptic topsy-turvy world - might help them find a way back to their time. Future episodes involve the triumvirate traveling from one human province to another, in search of technology that can help them return to the Earth of the past.  In the episode "The Legacy," the humans find working computers and a hologram of a 'future' human in a nearly destroyed 20th century city, but still aren't able to glean the information they require for a trip home.

As we've seen, the original Planet of the Apes films served as brilliant social commentary on the turbulent late 1960s and early 1970s. They concerned (among other things): nuclear war, man's self-destructive nature, and the pitfalls and total hypocrisy of religious zealotry.

By contrast, the television series limits its commentary to one fascinating subject: the issue of race relations, of a class society separated by race and species. This is an important point, considering this was the era after the Watts Riots and the Camden Riots (1971). The Civil Rights Movement was coming to an end for all intents and purposes, and suddenly here's a sci-fi TV show about "species" stereotypes and irrational, implacable biases.

"Escape from Tomorrow" is illuminating in the language it utilizes to describe humans, here deemed the "lesser" or "inferior" class. Both humans themselves and the ruling apes make pervasive derogatory comments in "Escape from Tomorrow" that we - living today - would certainly understand as bigoted or as examples of stereotypes. "Humans know their place," one chimpanzee prefect notes, "that musn't change. They'd begin to think they're as good as we are..."

A nearby village, Chollo, is described (by a human...) as "the village where humans are supposed to live," in other words a ghetto.

Galen describes humans as "laborers, farmers and servants" and was always taught to believe that they are an inferior breed. To suggest otherwise is heresy and treason on this world. But Galen is inquisitive and smart and looks beyond the stereotypes, finally. His experience with Alan and Burke makes him realize that human beings have feelings and dreams and hopes too. He asks Zaius's human serf what it is "like to be human" and then confronts Zaius after he learns that human beings have a history of technical and scientific achievement. "Why Zaius?" He asks. "Why should truth be against the law?"

Galen also suggests that "maybe the world would be better if no creature" was deemed superior to another. This point-of-view makes him a strong ally for the fugitive astronauts, but his objective, inquisitive nature also makes him a radical and fugitive among his own people. 

Earlier today, I reviewed the 2001 remake of Planet of the Apes and complained about the lack of background on the part of Ari (Helena Bonham Carter).  She was a human rights activist, but we didn't understand why or how she came to this perspective.  By contrast, "Escape from Tomorrow" at least lets the audience share in Galen's development on that front. We see him questing for answers and learning, step-by-step, about human beings. 

Another element of the Planet of the Apes series also seems to derive from another 1970s real life source. Namely, Zaius and Urko engage in a secret cover-up to destroy the spaceship and keep knowledge of the astronauts a secret from the general populace. In other words, the ape ruling class is working against its people (both human and simian). The apes live in a rigidly conservative or traditional society here, one where the status quo must remain intact at all costs, and the aristocracy lives in mortal dread of losing control, of seeing their imposed "natural" order change. "Heresy" and "treason" are common accusations for those who reject ape dogma. The idea of a cover-up and an authoritarian government (it's legal if the president says its legal...) surely reflect the Watergate Era, and Nixon's imperial presidency. All of that was coming to a head in 1974 America as this series aired.

Yet too often on the Planet of the Apes TV series, the story lines and plot details felt uninspired and repetitive. It all usually came down to one of the three heroes captured by the apes and then rescued by the other two cohorts before the hour was up.

And yet, I remember this series with tremendous fondness and affection because it had a great deal of value in terms of depicting a society separated by class and race. By putting white humans in the inferior position, the series makes quite a few trenchant points. Ultimately, that's the purpose of good science comment on society, and here the set-up is nearly Swiftian. On top of these elements, the series features good actors and a modestly well-drawn future world, thanks in part to the costumes left over from the feature films and the occasional use of stock footage (for Ape City exteriors, for instance).

I suppose to enjoy the Planet of the Apes series to its fullest, you must forgive the repetitive, action-oriented storytelling a bit and be willing to look for the underlying points, the subtext. These factors are present in most episodes (especially "The Trap," one that finds a gorilla and a human - Urko and Burke - trapped in an underground subway system together...), but also just a tiny resonance in quite a few programs.  If this series had lasted more than half-a-season, perhaps we would have seen the underlying social commentary rise to the surface more frequently.

Go Ape Day: Adventures on the Planet of the Apes!

Marvel Comics did a terrific job in the 1970s of expanding and developing the simian universe of the Planet of the Apes films. They not only published an outstanding black-and-white magazine (replete with articles about the making of the five feature films and television series), the company also released a color comic-book line adapting the films, "Adventures on the Planet of the Apes" (presented by the ubiquitous Stan Lee). 

I remember, I always purchased my copies at a huge comic-book booth inside a building at the Englishtown flea market in New Jersey. Those were great days to be a kid. 

In this particular issue, from November 1975, the first Apes feature, Planet of the Apes, is adapted in loving detail, with even a few embellishments. The story picks up here with Taylor (who looks nothing like Charlton Heston...) shot and unconscious after the cornfield hunt. He is dragged to a truck/cage, where he will make the journey to Ape City. One of the ape hunters claims to have heard the injured man speak, but his simian cohort warns him that "attributing intelligence to a human is a sin...a very serious one." 

Unlike the filmed version, we're also made privy to Taylor's thoughts on the long ride to the simian metropolis as he comes to. "This is insane," he muses during an interior monologue, "and I can't say a word about it. My throat's been ripped open. If I lose much more blood, I'll..." And then he collapses. How's that for some exposition? 

This issue follows Taylor to Ape City and the blood transfusion with lovely Nova, as well as his first encounter with kindly chimpanzee behavioralist, Dr. Zira. "World of Captive Humans" also introduces Dr. Zaius, probably my favorite character in the entire Apes saga, and Cornelius. The issue ends with Taylor's shocking note to Zira ("My Name is Taylor.")

I've kept quite a few of these ape comics for more than thirty years ago. I remember when I was in middle school, when I stayed home sick, I would drag all the comics out of my closet, order them sequentially, and read them oe after the other, from start to finish, reliving the movies.. 

Go Ape Day! Return to the Planet of the Apes (1975)

As part of my blog's ongoing Go Ape Day! I wrote about a re-imagination I didn't much care for: Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes (2001). 

By contrast, today I want to gaze at a different re-imagination, and one that's a lot more fun, the 1975 animated series Return to the Planet of the Apes.

Return to the Planet of the Apes is a program developed for television by David De Patrie and Fritz Freleng.  It assimilates and re-invents characters, plot lines, devices and technology from all previous incarnations of the once-popular franchise, including the Pierre Boulle novel, the 1968 film and sequels (Beneath, in particular…), and even the short-lived 1974 live-action TV series.

The result is an invigorating shot in the arm for the franchise. I hadn’t watched these half-hour episodes for something like thirty-five years, but re-discovering them on DVD, I was shocked and pleased at how attentive and committed to details (and to an overall story arc) this animated series remains.

Because frankly the buzz from the old genre press wasn’t good.

Going back to Fantastic Television a reference book from 1977 that I've always adored, the author writes in a summary review of the NBC series that it “was a not very exciting animated version of the short-lived CBS live-action series,” and that the artwork and plots were “simplistic.” (page 177).  The comment about the art work is correct, and yet some times "simplistic" can also mean...interesting.  Once you get used to it, the design of the cartoon series is actually pretty terrific, at least in a baroque kind of way.

The premiere episode of Return to the Planet of the Apes, “Flames of Doom,” (by Larry Spiegel), finds a NASA space capsule called the “Venture” traveling on a routine deep space mission on August 6, 1976.

Aboard are three astronauts: Bill Hudson (a white man), Jeff Allen (an African-American man) and Judy Franklin (a woman).

Bill narrates the captain’s log and confirms Dr. Stanton’s theory of “time thrust;” that man can utilize faster-than-light speeds to propel himself into the future. Admirers of the 1968 film will recognize this comment as a reflection of Chuck Heston’s opening narration, and Dr. Hasslein’s theory named there. It’s been simplified for children in this cartoon, but the idea is identical.

No sooner has Hudson informed us about this scientific theory than the ship’s chronometer goes wild and the Venture literally plunges into a time warp. The “Earth Clock” goes crazy, and the Venture arrives battered and bruised in the year 3979, where it crashes on a strange planet, and into a dead lake.

Meanwhile, elsewhere on the surface  – in a city ruled by intelligent apes – General Urko, a gorilla power-monger, addresses the Supreme Council of Ape City and demands genocide against all humans.

Arguing the opposite case is the kindly chimpanzee Cornelius, who pleads for a “different course.” He and his wife, a behavioral scientist named Zira, wish to study humans as the key to “simian origins.” Arbitrating this dispute of national importance is the ruler of the apes, an orangutan named Dr. Zaius.

I must note that the level of attention to detail in this scene is remarkable.  For as Zaius issues his decision on the matter at hand, the edit cuts to a stone relief on the wall behind him which reveals the long history of ape-human relations. There are images of apes hunting humans and even domesticating them.

Humans may be hunted as legitimate sport, Zaius concludes, or brought into the city to perform “menial tasks.” They may even serve as domestic pets, but Zaius will not demand their total destruction. However, on an ominous note, he warns that Article 18 of the “Book of Simian Prophecy” demands that man must be destroyed at any cost if he develops the power of speech. In other words, this is a temporary victory for Cornelius’s cause, and for the primitive, mute, stone-age humans who populate caves outside the technologically advanced ape-city.

Watching this portion of the episode, a few matters become plain. First and foremost, the franchise has returned to the ape society as depicted in Boulle’s original novel. In other words, the apes dwell in a twentieth century city with television, radio, automobiles and the like.

Their city is not a rock-outcropping like in the popular original movie, but rather a contemporary metropolis with buildings and skyscrapers that resemble those from human history in a wonderful nod to the adage “monkey see, monkey do.” The ape culture of the original film was almost medieval, despite the presence of guns and such medical advances as brain surgery. Not so here.

For instance, the imposing ape council building resembles nothing so much as our own Capitol Building where Congress deliberates. Since this is a re-imagination and updating of Planet of the Apes for the mid-1970s, not only is there the burgeoning nod to gender and racial diversity (this was the era of the equal rights amendment...) in the make-up of the astronauts, but the focus on the Council and its proceedings reveals a more bureaucratic bent to the apes.

Instead of ape culture being essentially of one mind (as in the see-no-evil/hear-no-evil/speak-no-evil triumvirate of the Schaffner film showcases), here Ape society is bedeviled by partisan politics, with chimpanzees representing the pacifist left, gorillas the militant right, and orangutans the sensible center. This is especially important considering the context of Return to the Planet of the Apes: immediately post-Watergate and soon after the Vietnam conflict. Again, this is an example of updating and changing a franchise, but not throwing out the baby with the bath water.

Continuing with the story, Bill, Jeff (voiced by Austin Stoker of Battle for the Planet of the Apes and Assault on Precinct 13), and Judy abandon their sinking spaceship and flee into the Forbidden Zone. Recalling the portions of the original film shot in Death Valley, the series offers an artistic montage here as the three astronauts search for water and food under the glaring sun of what they believe is an alien world.

The animated frames turn a bright scarlet hue to represent the heat of the desert and there are close-ups of human faces caked in sweat. Close-ups of tired feet marching in the sand also appear. This montage doesn’t rely on dialogue, but rather on clever images that express an emotion.

The animation is limited perhaps, even crude but these limitations are marshaled as a strength on the program. Overlapping views, double exposes, intense close-ups, insert shots and first person subjective point-of-view shots all provide a texture to the desperate march through the wasteland.

This march ends, appropriately, with the sighting of an Ape Mount Rushmore. Another new touch, but again one that along with the ape metropolis reveals the ape talent for mimicry (monkey see, monkey do) and is therefore thematically valuable; a subconscious reminder that all of the simian accomplishments are built on “aping” human society.  Later episodes go further with this idea, visiting "The Tomb of the Unknown Ape" or mentioning the famous author, William Apespeare.  One episode, "Invasion of the Underdwellers," even casts eyes on -- at least briefly -- a simian Mona Lisa.

In the desert, Jeff and Bill lose Judy when fires spontaneously erupts in front of them, and an earthquake splits the ground in a series of lovely frames that reveal a high degree of fidelity to images from Beneath the Planet of the Apes (particularly Taylor’s abduction by the underground mutants).

The astronauts have little time to ponder the loss of their companion, however, as Bill and Jeff encounter a tribe of stone age humans, including the beautiful Nova.

Suggesting an interesting mystery, Nova wears the dog tags of another astronaut, someone named Brent (again, a reference to Beneath the Planet of the Apes). His birth date was May 2, 2079, so Jeff and Bill are forced to ponder the notion that an astronaut who was born after them arrived on the planet of the apes before they did. Boggles the mind, no? This is a pretty advanced concept for a kid’s show, and it also provides an underlying mystery for adults to enjoy. Where is Brent? What happened to him?

Before long, the apes arrive, on the hunt,  in tanks, jeeps and with heavy artillery. The gorillas even lob gas grenades at the primitive humans. Here, the series utilizes zooms inside individual frames (not actual motion, but rather camera motion…) to suggest the frenetic pace of the hunt. Jeff and Bill are separated, and Bill is captured and taken to Ape City.

That’s where the first episode ends, but already, the attentive viewer can detect how this canny re-imagination assimilates the critical aspects of the Planet of the Apes mythos with something akin to 20/20 hindsight. Instead of making up the saga as it goes (a deficit of the otherwise outstanding motion picture series…), Return to the Planet of the Apes accounts for – from the very beginning – the mutants in the Forbidden Zone (here termed “The Underdwellers.”) It also employs familiar characters in new ways and in  new situations, and even incorporates movie imagery to vet the story. 

In terms of characters, Urko derives from Mark Lenard’s character on the 1974 TV series. In Beneath, a similar character was known as “Ursus.” He is essentially the same ape here, as are Zira and Cornelius, but Dr. Zaius has changed the most.

Zaius is no longer a hypocritical religious zealot, but rather an equalizing force of moderation in Ape Society…almost heroic!

The free ape is he who does not fear to go to the end of his thought,” he even states; an ideal that the movie’s “chief defender of the faith” could never get behind. This is actually an intelligent structural change as well as a symbolic representation of the left/right divide in our culture. Why? Because with Zaius moderating pacifists and war-mongers, we can more logically believe that humans (particularly the astronauts) can continue to escape and outmaneuver a technologically advanced simian culture. The whole planet isn’t out to kill them; they do have allies.  Dr. Zaius is even referred to by his enemies, the Underdwellers, as being "just...for an ape," and again, this is a sea change in the character's depiction.

From the original Planet of the Apes movie, “Flames of Doom” also incorporates other powerful visuals. We see the ape scarecrows on the border of the Forbidden Zone again, and, on a connected note, hear the same gorilla “hunt” horn on the soundtrack. We see a small, yellow rubber raft and a U.S. flag planted in the Forbidden Zone too, as well as the discovery of a first green plant indicating life on the fringe of the desert.

Again, the approach here seems to be to this: take what worked in the apes movie, book and TV series, and then put them all together in a more coherent, cohesive story, smoothing out the bumps and making everything jibe.

That’s important, because long time Planet of the Apes fans will remember some of the more dramatic gaps fouling continuity in the film series. In Planet of the Apes, for instance, it is the year 3978 when Taylor arrives, but when Brent arrives on his heels in the follow-up, Beneath, it is magically 3955. Similarly, there are discrepancies between Escape and Conquest in the story of how the apes ascended to superiority in man’s world. Cornelius’s story involves an ape named Aldo (whom we meet in Battle), but does not take into account the true ape revolutionary, Caesar.  Coming at essentially the end of the apes cycle, Return to the Planet of the Apes benefits from knowing everything that came before.

Indeed, this is the only valid reason for the re-imagination of a franchise. Taking what worked in one production and maintaining it; and taking what didn’t work and improving upon it.  It must be done, with a degree of love, patience and restraint involving the material. 

Notice that there is not merely change for the sake of change here; that characters have not miraculously switched sexes, and whole swaths of mythology have not been removed or altered to suit a "developer"s ego, or need to be "creative."

What I’m suggesting is that fundamentally there is a respect in evidence here for the the productions that came before, for the Apes mythos. So yes, a re-imagination can work, and this dedicated animated series is one example where it did so.

None of this means, however, that Return to the Planet of the Apes doesn't sometimes lapse into childishness and silliness.  The series was made, after all, to air on Saturday mornings in the 1970s.  The intended demographic was young children.  

This factor plays out in some funny ways throughout the series.  One episode involves two giant monsters clashing (an ape and what looks like a giant turkey...), for instance.  The Underdwellers are also notably more friendly to humans in this incarnation than in earlier ones, and suddenlt possess incredible powers.  They can "mind-transfer" images and physical beings from one location to another, for instance.  They are more than a match for Urko and his apes, so that his bullying tactics won't carry the day.

Similarly, the human astronauts depicted in Return to the Planet of the Apes are not nearly so desperate as the astronauts in the films and live action TV series.  In "Invasion of the Underdwellers" by J.C. Strong, for instance, Bill and Jeff use tools from their spacecraft to avert a crisis, including a laser drill.  Again, considering the intended audience, it's easy to see why such modifications have been made.  You don't want to scare the living daylights out of the children with a tale of over matched humans and threatening apes. 

Of course, by the same token, every kid watching in this cartoon in 1975 had probably already seen the Apes movies on the 4:30 PM movie or some equivalent, so perhaps hedging bets was an unnecessary accommodation.  After you've seen the Earth get incinerated, Urko isn't going to scare you that much...

I'd love to see the 20/20 hindsight approach of Return to the Planet of the Apes mirrored in a new, live-action TV series.  Send three astronauts into a high-tech ape society, and then tell stories about Ape City and the Forbidden Zone, and the gulf between.  Aim it squarely at adults this time, include lots of social commentary on the subject of man's self-destructive nature and race relationships, be true to the "time loop" aspect of the original films, and you'd have a winner. At least if it were produced for a premium channel like HBO where you can get away with pushing the envelope.

I'd definitely go ape over that.

Go Ape Day! Planet of the Apes Village (Mego)

For kids of Generation X (my generation...), there's one toy company that stands above the rest and absolutely remains a thing of legend:


In the 1970s, Mego held the Star Trek, Planet of the Apes and Marvel and D.C. superheroes licenses, and created some absolutely amazing toys that have now become prized collectors items. 

Growing up, I absolutely loved Planet of the Apes.  I avidly read the magazines and comics from Marvel, and played with the action figures and play sets from Mego.  As a kid in the 1970s, I could find many of these toys cheap at garage sales.  I still remember the time I purchased a boxed POTA tree house and Forbidden Zone play set for one dollar a piece. 

Best. Saturday. Ever.

One terrific and much beloved Mego Planet of the Apes toy from this era is the Planet of the Apes Village, a "giant 3 foot play set, headquarters for all Planet of the Apes 8 inch action figures." 

Truth be told, this play set is highly reminiscent of Mego's Batcave play set, but what the heck.  It's still cool.

The Planet of the Apes village folds down into a small carry case, and also opens up into this huge diorama of Ape City as seen in the 1968 film starring Charlton Heston and Roddy McDowall.  There's a "secret entrance" to Ape City, plus plenty of accouterments.  These include a "laboratory table" (for dissecting humans, no doubt...), a flip-up "weapons bench," a "capture net and carry pole," a "detention pen," "3 control sticks" and "3 rifles."

When fully assembled (with a green mat bridging the two ends,) the play set is a pretty impressive thing, but I love the fact you can fold it up and carry it with you so easily.   

The play set itself is made up of laminated cardboard, decorated with some expressive art from the Apes saga (including vistas of the Statue of Liberty and Ape City itself). 

I'm not sure how much kids of today would love this retro play set, but for me the Planet of the Apes village just absolutely takes me back to the disco decade, and some great times spent in the company of Zira, Cornelius, Zaius, Urko and the rest.

Go Ape Day: Ape City

Go Ape Day: Marvel Comics Pop Art

Go Ape Day! Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) is not only a great movie, it's a terrific Planet of the Apes movie too.  The film's special effects are downright astonishing, but more importantly the "human" story -- concerning an evolved ape seeking his destiny -- proves wholly affecting. 

In terms of the franchise, Rupert Wyatt's Rise of the Planet of the Apes features perhaps a dozen hints or links to future (or past?) events in the series and most of all, doesn't spoon-feed the audience all the answers regarding them.  Therefore, as much as the film sets up a new Apes franchise (in the mold of Star Trek [2009] or Batman Begins [2005]), it also showcases more than enough mystery to stimulate the mind. 

A new "future history" has been initiated here, and that hard work is done with real intelligence, detail and depth.  Just please be certain you don't leave the auditorium until after the end credits, or you'll miss the film's final (terrifying...), information-age coda.  I have the distinct feeling some major critics may have missed this coda, based on their reviews.  They seem to think that the apes only get so far as Golden Gate Bridge, when in fact another entire subplot reveals why Earth could very soon become a planet dominated by apes.

In assessing the quality of a Planet of the Apes film, one has to gaze at several criteria.  Does the film permit the audience to see human beings in a new light; from the outside (ape perspective) as it were?  Does the film then comment meaningfully on human nature, and compare it to ape nature?  Does the movie boast a convincing narrative with closure and distinct purpose while -- all the while -- laying the groundwork (or tying the knot...) for other entries in a film series that is a giant loop?  And, of course, is the film thrilling and action-packed in a way that supports that narrative?

Rise of the Planet of the Apes succeeds admirably in every single one those arenas.  Actually, I'll go further: it's the best movie I've seen theatrically in some time, and perhaps the best genre film I've seen this year.  In large part, the re-boot's grandest achievement is that it focuses so powerfully on one character, Caesar, and takes the audience through almost his whole life, from birth to young adulthood (ten years, perhaps).  Given that Caesar is created via digital special effects (and through the incomparable talents of Andy Serkis), the film's success is all the more surprising and admirable. 

"You'll learn who is boss soon enough..."

In Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a young scientist, Will Rodman (James Franco) at Gen-Sys develops the cure of Alzheimer's, called ALZ-112.  The chemical causes damaged brain cells to repair and re-build themselves, a brand of "Neuro genesis." 

The test of ALZ-112 on Chimp # 9, "Bright Eyes," has proven that it works admirably, but when the affected chimpanzee suddenly goes crazy and breaks out of confinement, the Board at Gen-Sys opts not to pursue human tests.  Later, Will and the chimpanzee handler, Franklin (Tyler Labine) discover that "Bright Eyes" may merely have been protecting her newborn infant.

With his work shut down, or at least set back, Will brings the orphaned baby chimp home, where his father, Charles (John Lithgow) names the ape "Caesar."  Charles suffers from Alzheimer's and Will, acting in secret, gives him the ALZ-112.  The cure works its wonders, at least for a time, and Will learns that Bright Eyes passed on the ALZ-112 to her son...meaning that Caesar possesses incredible intelligence.  By the age of three, Caesar is already smarter than his human counterparts...

As the years go by, Caesar becomes like a son to Will.  Along with a lovely zoo veterinarian, Caroline (Freida Pinto), Charles, Caesar and Will often visit Muir Woods, where the ape can climb the tall redwoods and roam free.  Unfortunately, Caesar acts violently against a cruel, callous neighbor when Charles' Alzheimer's returns, and for his defensive action is remanded to the San Bruno Primate Shelter run by the cruel Landon family (Brian Cox and Tom Felton).

While Will attempts to bring Caesar home, he also develops ALZ-113, a new strain of his cure that may have side-effects the scientist has not foreseen.  This fact does not stop Will's profit-hungry boss, Jacobs (David Oyelowo), however, from pursuing development of "the cure..."

"What is Caesar?"

Early in this film, animal handler Franklin reminds Will (and the movie-going audience) that apes boast "personalities" and that they "form attachments." 

In many ways, this line of dialogue is  the key to the film.  Rise of the Planet of the Apes concerns an orphaned chimp of extreme intelligence who becomes part of a family, Will's human family. 

Thus Caesar wears clothes like a human child, plays games like a human child, and forms attachments to those he loves.  He views Will as his father, and Charles as his grandfather.  Caesar even gazes out the attic window of his house and -- we can see it on his expressive face -- wants to play outside, like human children.  His happiest moments are those in Muir Woods, where he can fully exercise his ape heritage.  But importantly, even those wonderful moments are spent with his human family...the other part of Caesar's equation or make-up.

As Caesar grows, he begins to wonder explicitly about his nature.  "What is Caesar?" He asks Will, rather pointedly (in sign language).  The answer is that he's not quite a human and no longer a mere, unevolved ape either. He's something singular; something different.  And in that difference Caesar is lonely and confused.  Caroline warns Will at one point that as Caesar grows, he will no longer be the obedient, supplicating son, but rather a rival, a competitor.  In this dynamic, quite clearly, Rise of the Planet of the Apes develops a metaphor for both human adolescence and the perils of fatherhood.  

When Caesar's home is taken away from him and he's remanded to a facility where the apes are treated cruelly, we see what happens when an emotional, vulnerable being is abandoned by family.  To quote the film, evolution becomes revolution.  After a time, Caesar gives up the hope and belief that he will return home to Will, and turns his attention to the apes incarcerated with him. They are treated -- again to quote the film's most important dialogue -- as if they don't have personalities and as if they don't form attachments.  They're just stupid prisoners to be controlled, and Caesar's evolved mind becomes awakened to the idea that such captivity is wrong.  He finally sees a place for himself where he does a leader of his kind.

Again, this process very much mirrors the journey into adulthood we humans face.  There's the inevitable rejection of the "father" or the previous generation, and the search for one's own purpose, outside of "family of origin" definitions.  There's the leaving of home, and the discovery and building of a new home.  Rise of the Planet of the Apes feels very personal in its depiction of this theme.  Will's character proves very interesting in that he is both  a son and a father, and in some sense, he fails in both roles. 

The film largely adopts Caesar's perspective, and we sympathize with the character as he loses his mother, his home, and then even his already-limited freedom.  When he leads the apes on an escape from captivity (again, to Muir Woods), it's not so much a rebellion against humanity as it is a flight to a better life.  Again, this idea is very easy to sympathize with.  Growing-up and finding one's place can be a tempestuous process.  We all ask ourselves the questions: Who am I?  Who do I want to be?

The social commentary in this film arrives in  few key points.  Other than Will's family and Franklin, humans in the film are seen in light of the old proverb that money is the root of all evil.   Landon and Jacobs put profit ahead of humanity, ultimately to the detriment of humanity itself.  They would rather be rich than be good, and though this leitmotif doesn't equal the powerful anti-war sentiment of the original franchise, this idea is certainly timely in our culture right now, following the Great Recession.  Wealth -- the accumulation of money -- has become more important than safety concerns to many businessmen, as we saw in the BP Oil Spill of 2010.   Helping people seems secondary to lining pockets, or protecting interests.

Like Jurassic Park (1993), Mimic (1997) and Deep Blue Sea (1999), Rise of the Planet of the Apes is also about the common horror movie idea of science run amok; of science unchecked.  The film glides past the idea that "some things shouldn't be changed" in relation to Will's experimentation, right to the idea that business can't regulate itself when it comes to new (and potentially profitable...) science.  In other words, Will may have been wrong for testing ALZ-112 and ALZ-113 illicitly, but his actions weren't a threat to the world until his creations fell into the avaricious hands of Big Business. 

In some way, the film is very much about human arrogance too.  From Rise of the Planet of the Apes' first frames -- a brutal chimpanzee hunt in the jungle -- it obsesses on the almost casual way that humanity assumes that other creatures (such as apes) are his to do with as he pleases: to abduct, to experiment upon, and to imprison. 

In our arrogance, we believe that other creatures don't possess souls, or don't feel emotions  as we do.  In 2011, we have heard an awful lot in the media about government taking away our "freedoms" or "liberties," but how stingy mankind appears in regards to the freedom and liberties of other mammals or non-humans.  In that way, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is very much about animal rights, and this brings us full-circle to the original Planet of the Apes.  There, we saw Zaius's religious hypocrisy and the ape belief that only simians possessed the "spark" of the divine.  Today, many people similarly believe that Man is made in God's image and other creatures are just...dinner.  These folks believe what Ann Coulter espouses "God gave us the earth. We have dominion over the plants, the animals, the trees. God said, 'Earth is yours. Take it. Rape it. It's yours.Rise of the Planet of the Apes asks us to question that kind of cruel, selfish thinking.

Before I saw the film, I was very anxious about the CGI aspects of the movie.  If they failed...the movie would fail too.  Fortunately, I had no cause for concern.  The apes in this film are completely convincing and "real," and -- mirroring the through-line about personality and attachment -- register as real, recognizable individuals.  Caesar is the film's crowning achievement, but a gorilla named Buck is pretty amazing too, as is a slightly-mad chimpanzee named Coba. 

I haven't read many reviews to mention this fact, but in terms of physicality, Caesar actually seems to echo the contours of Roddy McDowall's face, at least after a fashion.  And his responses also strongly echo details of McDowall's performances, particularly in Conquest.  There's an instant in the film where Caesar hisses at a threat and then, after a moment of reflection, seems to reconsider and actually disapprove of his own "animal" behavior.  If you're a fan of the series, it's an emotional response you'll recognize instantly as McDowall's.  Seriously.  The effects-work isn't only gorgeous and realistic, then, it is actually faithful to the franchise and succeeds in making us sympathize with Caesar to an incredibe degree.  James Franco does a fine, restrained job as Will -- by selling the reality of the special effects, essentially -- but Caesar feels like a flesh and blood person, or ape.

In terms of thrilling action, Rise of the Planet of the Apes features several incredible scenes of Caesar's apes on the loose in San Francisco.  On first blush, it might not seem plausible that high-tech human law enforcement officials would have a problem containing this escape of the apes, but the film makes the case surprisingly well that the apes don't think like humans, and therefore keep surprising the humans. 

For instance, there's a great exterior visual of the apes leaping out of a building -- through glass windows -- by the dozen.  In another impressively-staged shot, we see that the apes apparently believe the quickest way to their destination is to go through an office building, not around it.   Again and again, the movie reveals how the apes operate on different principles of behavior, and how that behavior prevents law enforcement from responding effectively to the crisis.  That the apes are "evolved" plays into the matter too, of course.  The police don't expect the apes to pick up spears, use city buses as barricades, or deploy advanced battle tactics. 

The film's final battle on the Golden Gate Bridge is really fantastic work, in large part because we come to understand Caesar's tactics and movements, and the film doesn't cheat on spatial relationships or placement of the two "armies."  So many action films made these days rely on quick cutting and shaky cameras, but Rise of the Planet of the Apes builds its climax in relatively traditional film grammar terms, so that we understand where the characters are, who they are fighting, and what's at stake.  It's accomplished work, especially considering the complexity of the effects.

For the dedicated ape fan, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is an absolute delight. There are so many clever series touches here that it's difficult to remember and enumerate them all.  One involves Caesar's birth.  Nobody knew that "Bright Eyes" was even pregnant, and when Caesar is found, he's wrapped in a brown blanket....a blanket very much like the one that Zira wraps up baby Milo in during the conclusion of Escape from the Planet of the Apes.   To me, this raises a mystery.  Is Caesar really Bright Eyes' child, or the child of another ape, perhaps even Zira herself?  It's true that Caesare possesses the "green flecks" in his eyes that are a telltale sign of ALZ-112, but since this is passed on genetically, all evolved apes (even future apes of the year 3955...) would also possess them. 

Another mystery regarding Caesar's origin: What does the birth mark on his chest mean?  Is it present simply so the audience can recognize and differentiate Caesar more quickly and easily in the battle sequences?  Or does it carry another, deeper meaning?  Is it some kind of future-ape culture "brand" (in a caste system?) that was put on him by his real mother and father (whomever that may be)?  I don't know, and I like that the movie doesn't tell us too much.

Many reviews have also made note of the TV newscast that reports the disappearance of the spaceship "Icarus" on a mission to Mars.  At least unofficially, Icarus is the name of Taylor's spaceship from the original film, and it's disappearance suggests the time-dilation or Hasslein Curve that we're expecting.  A sequel to this film could have that spaceship arriving on Earth in a thousand years and finding Caesar's progeny. 

Rise of the Planet of the Apes also finds ways to work in Charlton Heston and famous lines of dialogue such as "take your stinking paws off me..." and "It's a madhouse,  madhouse!," but frankly, such touches aren't even really necessary.  The film works so impressively as a re-imagination of the franchise that the more overt pop culture shout-outs only seem to take away from the film's strong sense of dedication and fidelity to the source material.  My only wish is that in the primate shelter we had seen some ape name-plates that read Aldo, Lisa, and Mandemus.

I've read some critical complaints about the Tom Felton and Freida Pinto characters in the film, but these arguments largely miss the point.  These characters are not extraordinarily well-developed, to be certain, but they're as well developed, at least, as Julius in the original film, or Stephanie Branton in Escape.  Focusing on their superficiality misses the point: this is Caesar's story.  It's his story of determining "what he is," what he's supposed to be, and what purpose he is supposed to fulfill in his life.  The other characters are developed enough, but they aren't the focus.  In other words, you see about as much of them as you want to see, and no more.  It looks a lot to me like many critics were just trying to find things to quibble about in a movie that they largely liked, but didn't want to admit that they really liked.

Thrilling, intelligent, and emotionally resonant, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is everything I hoped it would be going in -- even with expectations high -- and perhaps more too.   When the film ended, I wanted to pay for another ticket and watch it again, to catch all the details I had missed.  I eagerly await the film's release on Blu Ray, that's for certain.

Finally, a re-imagination that doesn't make a monkey out of the audience.

Go Ape Day! Planet of the Apes Lunchbox

Go Ape Day! Planet of the Apes (2001)

If you frequent my blog with any regularity, I hope you know I'd much rather praise a movie than damn it.  Frankly, it's a matter of my own continued mental health: I don't relish devoting my time or energy to movies or TV programs I don't enjoy.  Not when there is so much out there that I do very much enjoy.

In some cases, obviously, it's just not possible to avoid a negative review.  Tim Burton's re-imagination of Planet of the Apes is surely one of  'em.  I first saw the film in theaters in the summer of 2001 and disliked it immensely. Then, in preparation for this review, I watched it again for the first time in a decade, hoping that it had aged in some fashion that would make the film seem more interesting or at least palatable. 

Sadly, that isn't the case, either.

Before I delve into the specifics of the  re-imagination, I'd also like to establish for the record that I'm a big Tim Burton fan, and that I admire many of his films, but especially Edward Scissorhands (1990),  Ed Wood (1994), Sleepy Hollow (1999) and Big Fish (2003). 

The following review isn't about any dislike for the artist or his oeuvre, only my dislike for this particular 2001 film. But his version of Planet of the Apes?  It's a missed opportunity on a colossal scale, and -- for long stretches -- a surprisingly dull and joyless film.  Many of the movie's egregious flaws can be traced back to the script, which focuses on off-the-shelf, uninteresting characters who prove almost impossible to care about.  Additionally, Mark Wahlberg is badly miscast in the lead role, and can hardly feign interest in even the best aspects of the material. 

Worse than those problems, this re-imagination of Planet of the Apes feels largely studio-bound and claustrophobic rather than epic, and the film offers only very little in terms of the franchise's trademark social commentary.  In fact, a central moment late in the film actually undercuts the original franchise's strong anti-war message.

In short, Planet of the Apes -- the re-imagination -- is an empty, mechanical exercise in blockbuster movie making, and one without a beating heart to call its own. 

Extremism in defense of apes is no vice

In 2026, the USAF Space Research Station Oberon encounters a strange electromagnetic storm nearby in space.  A test-pilot -- a chimp named Pericles -- launches a pod to investigate, but becomes lost in the space vortex.

Pericles' human trainer, astronaut Leo Davidson (Wahlberg) attempts to rescue Pericles, but is drawn into the phenomenon himself.   His tiny ship crash lands on a nearby planet in the year 5021 AD, and Leo finds himself on a world in which intelligent apes rule, and humans are slaves and second class citizens.

After his capture by the simian slave trader Limbo (Paul Giamatti), Leo finds himself a servant in the home of Senator Sandar (David Warner) and his "human rights faction" daughter, Ari (Helena Bonham Carter).  With  a group of slaves in tow, including the beautiful Daena (Estella Warren), Leo attempts to escape the city.

While Leo, Ari, Deana and others make for "the Forbidden Area" called Calima where ancient ruins from ape pre-history are located, the human-hating General Thade (Tim Roth) and General Attar (Michael Clarke Duncan) attempt to hunt down the fugitives.  Thade's dying father also warns the General that humans once possessed fearsome technology.

In the Forbidden Area, Leo discovers the ruins of his home base, the Oberon, and learns that the station crashed on the planet thousands of years earlier, while attempting to rescue him from the temporal vortex.  The test pilot apes aboard the station then rebelled against their human masters, and a new order -- a planet of the apes -- was born.

Now, Leo must rescue the human descendants of the Oberon crew, who have gathered at the Forbidden Area's ruins in search of a leader, and defeat the forces of Thade.  Helping Leo in this cause, the great ape God, Semos (really Pericles...) puts in a surprise appearance during the final battle...

Can't we all just get along? 

There are many Planet of the Apes fans, I realize who disliked this re-imagination almost a priori because it totally discarded the familiar franchise mythology and went in a totally new direction.

I actually don't hate the film on that basis.  The screenwriters, Lawrence Konner, Mark Rosenthal, and William Broyles Jr.  clearly studied the existing franchise and decided to go in a new direction that would -- despite the fresh take -- re-shuffle the  familiar ingredients already popular in the five-strong saga, 1968 - 1973. 

To wit, this re-imagination involves time travel, a human-friendly chimpanzee female, a spaceship crash in a lake, a hunt of humans by apes, desert scarecrows (!), an artifact from an earlier, technological era (a gun here, instead of the original's baby doll), and the secret of ape history...buried in the Forbidden Zone/Area.  The new film also boasts a surprise ending in the spirit and mode of the Statue of Liberty climax, and re-purposes much of the original film's most memorable dialogue, including "Damn them all to Hell" and "take your stinking paws off me..."

By purposefully re-using all of these familiar ingredients (down to a cameo by original star Charlton Heston), this 2001 version of the Planet of the Apes attempts to re-capture the vibe and aura of the original franchise, if not the narrative details. It's not a terrible gambit as far as "re-imaginations" go.   After all, would we want to see a shot-for-shot remake, or the same exact tale depicted again?  Either of those options would have invited only invidious comparisons to the 1968 film.  Part of the game in remakes is finding a fresh angle, and altering some of the narrative details so as to keep knowledgeable audiences off-base.   So I give the film it's premise, and it's invention of a new planet of the apes.  I would have preferred a straight-up sequel to the original franchise, or even a faithful adaptation of the Pierre Boulle novel, but okay.

And yet the re-imagination fails so dramatically because the people and apes who populate this new story are not interesting, unique, or well-written....even in the slightest degree.  In fact, everyone is a two-dimensional cartoon character, and that fact severely limits the narrative's capability to surprise, amuse or otherwise involve the audience.  If you don't care about the people involved in an adventure, the clever details of the adventure are almost unimportant.

The biggest problem is Leo Davidson. He's a test pilot who flies into a time vortex in pursuit of a rogue chimp and crashes on the planet of the apes.  He then spends the entire movie trying to get back home.  Because Leo's only purpose is escape and a return to space, he never truly engages or confronts the ape culture, at least not in the thorough, dramatic fashion that Taylor had to countenance it. 

In the original film, there was no escape for Taylor...and he knew it.  His ship was destroyed and he was 2,000 years beyond his own time period.  Where was he going to run?  Taylor had to stand trial before the apes and battle wits with the cunning Dr. Zaius.  The planet of the apes was his (very big) problem, and there was no avoiding it.  He had to be emotionally and personally involved in what happened to Zira, Cornelius and Nova because he was going to spend the rest of his life on this planet.

In the new Planet of the Apes, Leo breaks out of Ape City and just runs and runs until he can run no further.  He hardly countenances the apes at all.  They're just a temporary and bizarre inconvenience until he can track down a ship using his homing beacon.  His involvement with the politics and problems of the apes then, is nil.  And since he doesn't seem to care about the apes or the humans of this world, the audience doesn't care either.

Worse, Leo doesn't seem to have much happening in terms of his personality. As was immediately clear from the original Planet of the Apes, Taylor was a cynic, a misanthrope, and an acid wit.   He had a perspective on life that was evident in every action he took.  Leo is essentially a run-of-the-mill jock, a pilot who has haphazardly wandered into the planet of the apes and wants to get off, to quote The Simpsons.  There's absolutely nothing else to him.  What's his philosophy about mankind?  About space travel?  Why is he in the space service in the first place?  Any touch of color or differentiation would have appreciated.

Early on, there's the tiniest bit of attention given to the fact that apes get to fly spaceships instead of humans, and that this strategy irks Leo.  He wants to be an explorer and a leader of men, we intuit, and yet when he is thrust into this active role of leadership on the planet of the apes, he completely rjects it.  He denies and shirks his duty until the very last minute.  There's simply nothing unusual, interesting or noteworthy about this character, and since Leo is our surrogate in the picture, almost every aspect of the movie falls flat. 

At one point in the film, Ari notes that Leo is different from the other humans she has met; that he is unusual.  How so?  He hasn't spoken to her with greater sensitivity, revealed to her particularly much by way of superior intelligence, or even demonstrated remarkable physical agility.  We're just informed that he's special, and yet it just doesn't ring true with what the audience sees.   Why is he special or unusual?  The movie can't be bothered to show the audience.  We just have to accept that he is unusual because Ari says that he is, and because he's obviously the movie's "hero."  It's lazy.

I like Mark Wahlberg.  I think he's a great actor, especially given the right material. Boogie Nights (1997) is one of my favorite films of the 1990s, and I think he's also terrific in last year's The Fighter (2010). 

But he's out of his depth, or comfort zone, or something, in Planet of the Apes, and just doesn't carry the film in the way that he should.  And he doesnt' get any help from the flat writing, either.  Wahlberg's "inspirational" speech to the humans before battle in the Forbidden Area is a career low-point for the performer.  It's  half-heartedly delivered...on top of being poorly written. 

Unfortunately, the other characters in Burton's Planet of the Apes are no better drawn than Leo.  The villain of the piece, General Thade (Tim Roth) is another  two-dimensional cartoon character, an ape who just really, really, really hates humans.  There is no motivation for his overhwelming, epic hatred for humans voiced in the film (except the flimsiest of excuses about them infesting the provinces outside the city...), so he's just a cog in the screenplay's wheel.  The film needs a human-hating bad guy, and Thade provides that.  But no more.  Roth is another great actor ill-served by the script.  Thade sneers and hisses and jumps and growls, but doesn't register beyond those over-the-top histrionics.

Ari is likely as bad, in the other direction.  She is the "liberal" daughter of an ape senator and part of the "human rights faction" but we never know or understand what drives her activism.  As much as Thade is bad because the movie requires a villain, Ari is "good" because the movie requires a friend to help Leo.  In the original film, of course, Zira got to know Taylor and came to understand and like him.    At first she was fascinated and a little afraid of him.  By the end of the film, they were friends.  Ari is automatically on Leo's side from her first meeting with him, and risks everything in her life to help him escape.  Again, it doesn't quite ring true.  How did the indulged, affluent daughter of a politician come to be such a fearless human rights advocate?  The movie owes the audience some kind of explanation.

Then there's Warren's Daena, a very, very pale echo of the Nova character in the original.  Only here, Daena clearly wears glossy lipstick in all her close-ups (where'd she get it?) and is good for nothing plotwise except casting jealous looks at Ari and Leo as they grow closer.  Daena inspires none of the action in the film, and isn't even a romantic interest in the narrowest definition of that word.  She's just eye candy.  And at the end of the film, Leo leave the planet without hardly a glance back in her direction.  She is probably the most useless and ill-used character in the film, and that's saying something.

Even ostensibly weakest of the original Planet of the Apes films, Battle for the Planet of the Apes, thought to add layers of individuality to the film's characters.  Caesar was gripped in an existentialist crisis about his decisions, and how to bring about the future he desires.  Mandemus was the custodian of Caesar's conscience, but one who was tired of being locked in the armory and yearned to be free of the grave responsibility.  Aldo and Kolp -- the film's villains -- were depicted in either reoognizable human terms, or at least quirky ones.  They had some semblance of personality or distinction.  The characters in the new Planet of the Apes are all drones who plug story holes, but aren't recognizable as individual personalities. We've got a hero, a villain, a love interest and the by-the-numbers comic-relief, Limbo.

Another big disappointment with the film is the betrayal of the Planet of the Apes' franchise's anti-war (and especially anti-nuclear war) legacy.  Late in the film, Leo discovers that the Oberon's nuclear fuel is still operational and conveniently powering the ruined ship.  He rigs it to deliver a death blow to the advancing ape army.  Where the other ape films expressed anxiety about the use of nuclear weaponry, here a weapon of mass destruction is merely a convenient tool to even the odds in combat.  We are encouraged to cheer when Leo pulps the attacking apes by the hundreds, and again, this simply isn't true to franchise history. This ape story is thus merely an adventure about a freak twist of time, and not a comment on man's self-destructive nature.  It's okay for Leo to kill the apes; there's no commentary or rejection of his actions.  Again, he's the "good guy" a priori, right?

In terms of social commentary, there's not much significant here at all.  One character, Limbo, gets to give voice to Rodney King's plea for civility, "can't we all get along?"  There's also a line about  a "human welfare state," but these are the limits of the film's social conscience.   This dearth of commentary or subtext is a double disappointment, because Tim Burton's films often feature commentary on what it means to feel disenfranchised; to be an outsider to the establishment.  Planet of the Apes could have been re-formed and re-purposed to adhere to this career-long obsession with a better, more knowing script.  Instead, Burton's familiar theme is just barely touched upon in Ari's predicament, since she's accepted by neither apes nor humans.

The re-imagination of Planet of the Apes also suffers from its look.   Matte paintings have replaced the life-size structures of the original Ape City, and studio locations have largely replaced exteriors.  Alas, these are two of the enduring delights of the original Planet of the Apes.  There, you had the sense of a full-blown world, from the arid Forbidden Zone to the green belt surrounding the city, to the simian metropolis itself.  It was a fully-realized world and not a closed-off movie world in so many ways.  This re-imagination forsakes those strengths.  It also forsakes any attempt at suspense or build-up of anticipation regarding the appearance of the apes themselves.  Where the original film took forty minutes to get Taylor captured and to Ape City, Burton's Planet of the Apes gets Leo and the apes together within just fifteen.  It feels rushed. 

The make-up work of Rick Baker is impressive, to be certain, but after a week of watching ape films, it doesn't seem to me that the work here is a quantum leap ahead of the sixties film.  Especially when the make-up is essentially the only truly interesting element of the film.  The new concept of the apes -- which puts them on all fours when they run, and allows them to jump and swing from trees -- is certainly a new wrinkle, but somehow it registers as being less civilized, which runs counter to the point of the whole enterprise.  I also must confess, I missed the idea of an ape social hierarchy or caste system here.  There's almost no thought given to the details of the ape culture in this film.

Planet of the Apes' surprise ending has been the source of much debate over the years.  In the climax, as you will recall, Leo returns to Earth and discovers that General Thade has been there and managed a coup.  Earth too, has become a planet of the apes, as the Lincoln -- now Thade -- Monument memorably attests.  

Since the movie concerns a time paradox in space, I don't find it impossible that Thade could have somehow, in some reality, accomplished this revolution on Earth.  Instead, what bothers me concerning the finale is that the ending carries almost no emotional weight. It feels like a trick or gimmick, not an outgrowth of the film's story.  Like so much of the film, there's just no emotional connection to it.  What does Leo learn about himself, human nature, or life in terms of this ending?  Nothing, really.  Unlike the joyless, interminable battle in the desert, at least the ending of the film in Washington D.C. boasts the distinction of being beautifully shot.  It just comes out of left field.

The 2001 re-imagination of Planet of the Apes lacks subtext, characters to care about, a connection to the franchise's past, and a driving narrative beat.  It almost seems to curl up and die on the screen while you're watching it, a veritable cinematic disaster. 

When General Thade grabs Leo Davidson and looks down inside his throat, asking "is there a soul in there?" audiences may want to direct the very same interrogative to this flat, lifeless "brand name" movie itself.

Is there a soul in there?  Anywhere?