Planet of the Apes 50th Anniversary: 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Is there a soul in there? Anywhere?