By Owen Gleiberman
August 03, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT
  • Movie

In Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes, there’s a villainous general named Thade — a diminutive, sadistic-despot chimpanzee who bounces around the forest like a mad Ping-Pong ball, propelled by raw fury. He’s played, in a performance of gnashing wit and ferocity, by Tim Roth, who gives him the exaggerated, rolling-shoulder swagger of a pint-size simian John Wayne. This Napoleonic fascist is no one to mess with; he regards the human race as dirt beneath his foot-paws. Roth, a terrific scenery chewer, has mastered the essential principal of ape acting as laid down 33 years ago by its patron saint, Roddy McDowall: From beneath the rubbery layers of Rick Baker’s makeup, Roth uses everything at his disposal — voice, operatic body language, the angle of his eyes — to imprint Thade with the force of his own personality.

Several of the other actors make compelling apes as well — notably Helena Bonham Carter, all curled lips and cooey caressing sweetness as Ari, a kind of animal-rights activist who believes in protecting the dignity of the human slaves around her. She also happens to be the most soulful beauty on the planet, though I have to say that she might have been even cuter had she not been stuck with Brenda Vaccaro’s hair. As the orange-bearded orangutan Limbo, a charming old sissy who trades humans as slaves and pets, Paul Giamatti, the actor whose anthropoid makeup has been most directly patterned after his own features, does small wonders with his saintly sad eyes and cowardly-lion quaver. No doubt: The apes in Planet of the Apes have character. It may or may not be one of the film’s overdeliberate zoological ironies that Mark Wahlberg, as the space-wrecked Air Force pilot who leads a ragtag band of humans in revolt, comes off as a distinctly less interesting form of primate.

The 1968 Planet of the Apes is fondly remembered for a great many reasons. The humanoid-gorilla makeup was, at the time, unprecedented in its elastic expressiveness, and the story, taken from Pierre Boulle’s novel, had a fearful sci-fi charge that was thrilling in its very blatancy. The film’s comic-book racial overtones, crude as they may look now, carried a bold symbolic immediacy amid the heat and tumult of the civil rights era, and the whole production was staged with an irresistible end-of-the-empire vastness, even if it all looks far cheesier than the way you remember it. (Viewed today, that ”spectacular” white-boulder ape city might be a shopping center patronized by the Flintstones.)

I doubt, however, that Planet of the Apes would ever have hooked so powerfully into its era, spawning four sequels, had it not been for the grizzled self-righteousness, the nearly totemic overacting, of Charlton Heston. Caged, stripped, mocked, led around in dirty rags by his ape tormentors, his noble airman wasn’t just oppressed, he was all but violated. When he finally let loose with ”Take your stinkin’ paws off me, you damn dirty ape!” Heston was the very image of Hollywood — of America — fighting to retain its virility in a world that had seized the power to lay the establishment low.

Mark Wahlberg, his physical bravura rippled by undercurrents of moody protest, can be an actor of quiet charisma, but in Planet of the Apes, he’s a blank; he comes as close as possible to being a generic hero. In the midst of chimp research at an outer-space station, his Captain Davidson straps himself into a pod that looks like a giant electric razor and ends up having a close shave with an electromagnetic storm, crash-landing on the ape planet. Imprisoned, he leads a handful of slaves on what is essentially a protracted great escape, but there’s precious little urgency to the flight.

Burton, abandoning any pretense of Gothic poetic style, shoots most of the movie in monotonous woodland darkness, and Wahlberg has been given virtually nothing to do except react to immediate physical ordeals. The script is a busy, sometimes amusing babble of ape-human double entendres and tidbit tolerance lessons (an ape forces Davidson’s mouth open and rasps, ”Is there a soul in there?”), most of it draped over a routine action skeleton. Since all of the humans talk this time, the notion that they’re regarded as ”lowly,” while certainly unjust, isn’t resonant enough to stir audience outrage. Besides, with Kris Kristofferson coming on like Nick Nolte in Neptune curls, and Estella Warren scampering around in a pointlessly conservative version of Raquel Welch prehistoric-wear, what the human race in this movie seems most in need of being saved from is the perils of threadbare screenwriting.

Are there surprises? A couple of big-money ones, notably the ludicrous would-be jaw-dropper of a finale. Yet Planet of the Apes, whose makers have claimed that it is less a remake than a reimagining, features backlot spectacle, a cast-of-hundreds battle, a weak whisper of gladiatorial vengeance — everything, in fact, but imagination. Following Sleepy Hollow, with its ye-olde slasher repetitiveness camouflaged by virtuoso displays of ground fog, the movie is all but destined to become Burton’s second hit in a row. Let’s hope that he uses his newly restored power in Hollywood to become an artist again.