Grand Gorilla Theater

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 27, 2001

In Tim Burton's "Planet of the Apes," Kong is king, Cheetah is the top banana and all the barrels are filled with humans. And as usual in science fiction, man has made a mess of things.

In the director's astonishing new version of this evolutionary epic, a foolhardy young astronaut (Mark Wahlberg) precipitates a creationist's nightmare, a funny, frightening realm where man is no longer master of his domain.

Splendidly envisioned and boldly executed, Burton's film pays homage to the campy 1968 original. But it adheres more closely to Pierre Boulle's 1956 novel, an enduring though somewhat dated fable that holds a fun-house mirror up to the naked ape.

Although the sins of racism, sexism and all the other -isms are still reflected, Burton and screenwriters William Broyles Jr., Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal avoid the first film's ham-fisted moralizing in favor of a more satiric approach to the material. The famous line "Can't we all just get along?" is played for laughs here.

Furthermore, the apes aren't just people with rubber muzzles but sentient simians who play poker with aces up every sleeve. There are chimps who are chumps and others who are champs. Each creature is an individual with quirks, costumes and motivations all his or her own. They no longer drag their knuckles on the ground, but they still maintain apish traits: grooming, sniffing, beating their chests, swinging from the rafters and walking with a bowlegged gait. Yet each species has its own unique traits, such as the gorillas who resemble "Star Trek's" Klingons in their stature, ferocity and militarism.

And just as the ape civilization is an extrapolation of simian behavior, the creatures' vine-covered Ape-tropolis might have evolved from an arboreal habitat. The feudal yet futuristic village echoes the movie's theme of conflict between man and nature and the resulting ecological crisis.

The story begins in space on an exploratory mission in this century. Leo Davidson (the serviceable Wahlberg), the Air Force captain destined to lead a human revolt against these hirsute oppressors, begins his adventure in a ship straight out of "2001: A Space Odyssey" -- streamlined, gleaming and bristling with high-tech whiz-bangs. He disobeys orders and leaves the mother ship in order to save Pericles, a chimp he has trained to pilot a probe that has been sucked into a spatial anomaly.

Davidson lands in a jungle world where he must endure -- like a contestant on "Survivor" -- without benefit of technology. After escaping from his shuttle pod, he is immediately caught up in a hair-raising chase, captured by ape slavers and, along with several other humans, delivered to Limbo (weaselly Paul Giamatti), an opportunistic orangutan merchant who provides comic relief.

Davidson catches the eye of a human rebel (primitive eye candy Estella Warren) as well as the attention of Ari (Helena Bonham Carter, a beauty even as an ape), an upper-class liberal and Free-Human Activist who buys the other two from Limbo, then helps them escape into the Forbidden Zone. The inter-species love triangle results in the first screen kiss between Homo sapiens and chimp -- and not on the cheek, either. In any case, it is an encounter between beauty and the beast (but which is the beast?) that adds still more humor to the piece.

The relationship infuriates Thade (persuasively fascistic Tim Roth), a psychotic general who is as obsessed with winning Ari as he is with ridding the planet of humans. They're as populous as deer on Earth, and among proposed solutions are birth control and culling the herd, though Thade favors genocide if only he can persuade the governor to declare martial law.

Charlton Heston, the hero of the original, gamely plays Thade's father, an ailing patrician with mixed feelings about guns. He's got no doubts, however, when it comes to the Other Race: "Damn the humans, damn them all to hell."

Michael Clarke Duncan ("The Green Mile") brings a proud demeanor and a noble spirit to gorilla Attar, Thade's second in command. Attar may question Thade's demands, but he never disobeys them -- unlike some astronauts we know. But as the movie makes clear, utmost loyalty is sometimes as wrongheaded as disobedience.

Davidson is typical of Burton's heroes. He's a fish out of water, like the Hollywood outcast of "Ed Wood," the Pumpkin King in "The Nightmare Before Christmas" and the scholarly investigator in the superstitious "Sleepy Hollow." With the notable exception of "Edward Scissorhands," his characters get themselves into trouble without any help from technology.

Playing God is not the problem here -- it's plain bullheadedness. But the movie does possess existential elements, not that the filmmakers delve into them with gravity. The apes' view of themselves is grounded in the mythology of the Seminal Chimp -- which doesn't make a lot of sense -- and contributes to their self-centered view of the universe. And Davidson is clearly a messianic figure who has come to lead his people out of the wilderness.

Many "Star Trek" episodes treat esoteric themes with more profundity -- not that an eye-popping movie about monkeys calls for deep thinking. On the other hand, it calls for the suspension of disbelief, particularly when it comes to theories of relativity and relatedness.

But forget the heavy stuff. This monkey shines.

Planet of the Apes (120 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for violence.

© 2001 The Washington Post Company