Ape Man's Burden By Mike White. In Cashiers du Cinemart #10, I explored the possible future of the Planet of the Apes. At that time, rumours of an imminent remake of Franklin J...
In Cashiers du Cinemart #10, I explored the possible future of the Planet of the Apes. At that time, rumours of an imminent remake of Franklin J. Schaffner’s 1968 film, Planet of the Apes, had flourished for over a decade. After reviewing two of the most notable possible scripts by Terry Hayes and Sam Hamm, I concluded that an Apes remake seemed doomed to a hackneyed rehash of the original film series.
Shortly after publishing CdC #10, stories surfaced that William Broyles had been tapped to pen yet another Apes film. Of course, Broyles’s script went through several rewrites before he would share screen credit with Lawrence Konner and Mark D. Rosenthal. For now, Broyles’s original draft remains elusive. The closest version of the pre-screen version of Broyles’s Planet of the Apes available is the novelization by William T. Quick.
Broyles’s script seems something of a hybrid of Hayes’s and Hamm’s work. The Hayes and Hamm scripts shared themes of convoluted time travel and DNA tampering. The new Planet of the Apes (referred to as POTA 2001 for the remainder of this article) remains saddled with these concepts. Yet, neither idea takes the forefront.
POTA 2001 begins in 2021 A.D. with the crew of the spaceship Oberon, an apparent ape training vessel, falling victim to a powerful “space storm” that catapults two of its crew three thousand years into the future. The audience follows the exploits of human crewman Captain Leo Davidson (Mark Wahlberg) after he crash-lands on a handy planet where the Oberon had crashed shortly after his departure. He finds scads of loincloth-clad tribes people (descendants of the crew of his ship) and culturally superior Apes.
Unlike the other beasts of the jungle, the humans of POTA 2001 have kept their ability to speak. While this may seem far more logical than novelist Pierre Boulle’s “cerebral laziness” of La Planète Des Singes, Sam Hamm’s recessive gene theory, or the unexplained obstreperousness of Terry Hayes’s Apes script, ultimately the presence of verbose humans severely hinders the development of the film. Anthropologically, speech is viewed as a gateway to culture. Yet, humans lack a cohesive society having de-evolved into wandering bands of primitives. The Ape sentiment that “human culture takes place below the waist” doesn’t appear far from the truth.
The tribal humans Davidson encounters on the Planet of the Apes resemble unkempt androids. They share Davidson’s interminable lack of personality. With both primitives and Davidson speaking fluent English there is no crucial difference to set Davidson apart from his fellow humans and position him in a place of heretical similarity to the Apes.
Davidson looks quite human but, as a leading man, he’s a retail store mannequin. I have no quarrel with Mark Wahlberg as an actor but, undeniably, he is not the cultural icon that Charleton Heston was before he zipped into the flight suit of Colonel Taylor. With such a milquetoast protagonist, the choice of Wahlberg becomes questionable. Who would be better to represent Homo sapiens? In the multicultural future, will male Caucasians still be the best suited to stand in for humanity?
The crew of the Oberon (while not explicitly shown) numbered enough to provide the necessary genetic diversity for thousands of years without serious inbreeding. Yet, either the non-Caucasian progenitors have retreated far into the “Forbidden Area,” they’ve been hunted hardest by the Apes, or they’ve been wiped out by their fellow humans. Regardless, they are as in short supply as Orangutans.
In Quick’s novelization, the only minorities mentioned are human servants, “Tival...a middle-aged black man [and] Bon, a tiny Chinese woman.” In the final film, Bon (Freda Foh Shen) remains Asian while Erick Avarian actor often cast as a Middle Easternerplays Tival. One of Daena’s fellow tribesmen is Black but his race remains conspicuously not at issue. In the original Planet of the Apes, tribesmen were strictly Caucasian with the only Black person-Taylor’s fellow astronaut, Dodge (Jeff Burton)-shot, stuffed, and stuck in a museum.
As Davidson, Wahlberg struggles to give his character any character at all. Our only glimpse into his inner-motivation is the contempt he holds for his simian “co-workers.” He is propelled into the film as he attempts to prove that his superiors should, “never send a monkey to do a man’s job.” Perhaps Davidson left Earth as a protest to some kind of simian Affirmative Action.
Rather than lacking depth, the Ape population lacks breadth. The main Apes represent singular notions of “animosity,” “piety,” and “avarice” in General Thade (Tim Roth), Attar (Michael Clarke Duncan), and Limbo (Paul Giamatti). As Thade, Roth spends every second on screen spewing and stewing, his enmity so uncontained and unexplained that he can’t even function in simple social settings. Playing Thade to the hilt, Roth’s performance becomes unintentionally comical, especially as he bounces around like an errant ping-pong ball.
Thade, Attar, and Limbo, represent the three species of Apes in POTA 2001: chimpanzee, gorilla, and orangutan. Interestingly, in early drafts of the script, Limbo was a chimpanzee. Making him an orangutan clearly removes orangutans from the patrician role of the original Planet of the Apes. Limbo, a slave trader, is the most reviled Ape we see. Orangutans seem something of an endangered species; there are only two orangutans of note in the film, yet there are legions of chimpanzees and gorillas.
With the positioning of orangutans as a Senator and a slave trader, it might appear that the social stratum of the original Apes film has been discarded. A closer look reveals chimpanzees clearly in a superior position to gorillas. More than distinguishing themselves with different armour while serving in the same army, every gorilla answers to a chimp while no chimps do the same for a gorilla.
The chimpanzees in POTA 2001 enjoy positions of power as well as a characteristic shared with the more “civilized” Apes of the original Apes series: British accents. Like Maurice Evans (Dr. Zaius) and Cornelius/Caesar (Roddy McDowall), three prominent members of society, General Thade, Ari (Helena Bonham Carter), and her father, Senator Sandar (David Warner) are played by Brits. Meanwhile, like Ari’s original servants, the two prominent gorillas of POTA 2001, Attar and Krull (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), are played by an African American and an Asian.
Ari is the only character of any potential interest in POTA 2001. However, her inner motivations remain cloaked behind her didactic pleas for human equality when she’s with Apes. When she’s with humans she fades into the background. She’s the “poor little rich chimp” with her gorilla protector, Krull, and “social cause” for which to fight.
It is only the occasional dispirited reaction shots of Daena (Estella Warren), leader of a human tribe that could lead viewers to the assumption that Ari poses a threat to the humans. More than in the finished film, in early drafts of the film’s script Ari is not a physical danger, but rather a romantic rival to Daena. In mainstream American cinema, there is still reluctance to accept “race mixing.” Heaven forbid that audiences consider “species mixing!” Bereft of this love triangle, Davidson seems doomed to a relationship with Daena-the Aryan opposite of Ari who, while being a wilderness-bound savage, sports flawless hair and make-up. However, while Ari and Davidson may share a love that dare not speak its name, “species mixing” goes on between Apes. Witness the orangutan Senator Nado (Glenn Shadix) and his trophy wife, Nova (Lisa Marie), a chimpanzee.
As a simple science fiction romp, POTA 2001 quickly discards the more interesting aspects of the story. The one-dimensional characters fittingly populate a flat story: a simple trip from Point A to Point B with no sharp turns between. Even the so-called “Forbidden Area” presents no second thought for either the humans or Apes to traipse about there. Davidson leads the expedition with single-minded determination. He’s looking for his ship and neither finds nor seeks anything else along the way. He doesn’t come to grasp human-Ape interpersonal relationships, nor does any of his motley band. The Apes remain as ideologically separate from the humans from beginning to end.
Whenever there’s a slight chance of the film getting interesting, director Tim Burton veers the film back to safe, dull territory. For example, rather than exploring the inner workings of Ape City, Davidson escapes with ease the first evening he’s there. Likewise, the audience never becomes privy to the humans in their tribal elements. And, during the film’s anticlimax, just when it appears that Davidson and his band of tribal humans are doomed...voila! They’re miraculously saved by the arrival of Pericles, Davidson’s simian pilot-in-training.
Ape religion focuses on the return of Semos-the Ape progenitor-as a messiah. Yet, the overthrow of humans by Apes remains a shadowy mystery. Missing is the revelation of speech among the Apes and the motivation for Semos’s rebellion. POTA 2001 even lacks the irony to make Semos a recognizable Ape crewmate of its human protagonist.
The religion of the Apes is simplistic compared to the co-opted Christianity of the original Planet of the Apes. The Apes justify their superior attitude by classifying humans as soulless beasts, straddling the line between religious dogmatism and fascist rhetoric. Ironically, judging by the blank stares of the humans in POTA 2001, one would be hard-pressed to argue against this assertion.
It’s not every day that simians from fall from the sky, descending in a brilliant ball of white light. Yet, mistaking Pericles for Semos is yet another gaping hole in the film’s logic. (Imagine if a Judeo-Christian messiah arrived who was somewhere a few steps down the evolutionary ladder. That would be a bit of a letdown, wouldn’t it?) Even more astonishing than adopting the as-yet-evolved chimpanzee as savior, with the appearance of this fortuitous deus ex machina, three thousand years of discord immediately dissolve. Let the healing begin! At least we’re spared a slow motion shot of Ape and human children playing together in harmony. However, the finale of POTA 2001 is just as cheesy and far more illogical.
According to actor Michael Clarke Duncan, director Tim Burton shot five separate endings to POTA 2001. The one chosen echoes the ending of Pierre Boulle’s novel and Sam Hamm’s Planet of the Apes script (as well as a Kevin Smith comic), the “big twist” ending of POTA 2001 has Davidson returning to Earth, only to find that Apes have conquered it. Certainly, the same genetically mutated apes reside in Earth-bound labs. Perhaps they evolved and overthrew their numerous human captors. The real head-scratcher comes when we see that the Lincoln Memorial has been transformed into a monument to General Thade. How Thade managed to travel through time and space (and escape from his fate back on the Planet of the Apes) will forever remain a stupid mystery.
Separate But Equal
Without the vast history and baggage of the original film series, POTA 2001 merely serves as a Saturday Afternoon’s mindless action film. Or does it?
One of the more interesting books I’ve read this year is Eric Greene’s Planet of the Apes as American Myth: Race, Politics, and Popular Culture (ISBN: 0819563293). I don’t recall when I first heard that the Apes films could be read as a metaphor for race relations between Whitey and African-Americans. However, the idea has been with me for so long that Greene’s initial premise of Apes standing in for repressed social groups was no big shocker. Luckily, Greene’s analysis isn’t off-the-cuff pop culture fluff. His work is well researched and multifaceted. I should only hope that Greene’s publisher allows him to re-release his book with an additional chapter about Burton’s Apes film.
Notes Greene, “Culture may... function as an ideological tar baby: the harder we struggle against it, the more entangled in it we may become. Therefore, even in the act of rebelling against the sins of the past, we may replicate them. Even in the midst of radical gestures, there may be reactionary counterstrokes.” Broyles and Burton have gotten stuck in that “ideological tar baby.” By rebelling against rampant “political correctness,” POTA 2001 is a “reactionary counterstroke,” demonstrating an attitude toward racial equality that falls somewhere prior to Brown vs. the board of Education, Topeka, KS.
In the original Apes films, parodied racist phrases (“all men look alike to most apes”) serve to signal audiences that human culture is being critiqued. In Quick’s novelization, when the orangutan Limbo finds himself at the mercy of his former captives he “frantically tried to remember what sort of blasphemous, moronic drivel he’d heard.” He begins spouting very familiar phrases such as, “Separate but equal,” and “to each his own!” In Burton’s film, Limbo rounds out his insincere speech with, “Can’t we all just get along?” This farcical use of Rodney King’s plea to end the violence during the Los Angeles riots is utterly appalling.
Greene writes, “An Apes story geared to the challenges and struggles of the nineties and early twenty-first century will look both like and unlike the Apes stories used to address the sixties and seventies... Both consistency and innovation will be required for the Apes mythology to register and respond to the way things have changed and the way they have stayed the same. This is the way mythology stays fresh and relevant.”
Unfortunately, POTA 2001 is not fresh. The only relevancy present springs from its ultraconservative attitude. There may be some irony in casting Charleton Heston as Thade’s father and giving the outspoken National Rifle Association representative a few lines of anti-gun dialogue (why the Oberon crew had 20th Century pistols remains unknown). Yet, far more striking is that a crucial plot point of POTA 2001 comes from the inability of the Apes to swim. Regardless of the ape’s nautical abilities, this feels like an open play upon a widely held stereotype that African Americans cannot tread water.
Davidson (and novelization author Quick) frequently refers to the simian population of Ape Planet as “monkeys.” Despite acknowledgement as a derisive term, Davidson and Quick use it with vigor. More than a racial epitaph, to call and Ape a “monkey” is comparable to dehumanizing a man, a tactic employed by racists to describe the objects of their contempt.
Going back to the potential relationship between Davidson and Ari, Quick writes Davidson’s inner monologue thusly: “If Ari had been a human woman, he would have understood it, known how to deal with it. But, she was an ape, and to him, no matter how smart or literate or compassionate, that meant she was an animal. And humans just didn’t have that kind of relationship with beasts...” (emphasis original). Ari’s love goes unrequited despite her having mounds more personality than Daena. The poor Ape woman falls so close to the mark but her genes prevent Davidson from having feelings for her.† Even actor Mark Wahlberg remarked how attractive he found Helena Bonham Carter in her Ape make-up. (In a bout of political incorrectness, he likened her appearance to African-American singer Janet Jackson during an interview with Howard Stern!)
Until the unlikely arrival or Pericles, Davidson’s attitude does not change. Pericles, a subservient simian clings to Davidson as a keeper figure (“Master”). It takes a pre-evolved, submissive ape to show the way. The conspicuous moral of POTA 2001 is not to treat the “lower species” with kindness but to quit futzing around with chromosomes! Who knows? Someday the animals may rise up and enslave their supposed “masters.” They may even try to seduce human beings with their wily animal ways.
Discussing the as-yet-unmade POTA 2001, Greene prophetically states, “Regardless of who eventually creates the new Apes project, or projects, the filmmakers will inherit a mythology that, if used imaginatively and intelligently, provides an open field upon which they may play with a variety of artistic, thematic, and political possibilities... The confluence of the political and cultural trends of the last several years has made the time right for a new Apes film. Our public mythologies, no less than our personal ones, are developed to address deep problems and concerns.”
There was no intelligence and little imagination in the creation of POTA 2001. Rather, there was an overly strong reliance on special effects and cinematic advances in make-up. Knowing full well the ramifications of the original Planet of the Apes films makes the transgressions of those behind POTA 2001 all the more abhorrent.
†One would think that the arena to explore this “love that dare not speak its name,” is James Bacchus’s Playmate of the Apes, a softcore parody of Planet of the Apes. However, while the film has half its cast in rubber ape masks, the “romance” consists of nothing more than lesbian make-out sessions of limitless nipple tweaking and simulated oral sex between comely human lasses. The simian stars and starlets miss the same-sex/same-species action. Bacchus’s filmmaking easily outshines Burton’s somnambulistic approach to POTA 2001. Likewise, the script’s groan-inducing one-liners succeed where the humor of POTA 2001 fell flat. Alas, I lost the taste for softcore films after I got a membership at a video store with a well-stocked adult video section.
Article revised and available in the Impossibly Funky Collection