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Going Ape in the Aisle Seat

A review of Tim Burton's new version


By Andy Dursin

Even though I was born a year after the last entry in the original PLANET OF THE APES series had been released, I nevertheless grew up watching the films -- and its TV spin-off -- on local television and videotape. The series' colorful adventures captivated me as a child (as it did for countless young movie-goers), working splendidly on that level while adults were able to appreciate the intriguing story lines and (often none-too-subtle) social-political parallels to real life.

I caught up with the original series a few years ago in one of my "Laserphile" columns for FSM, and was surprised at how well it held up. While the 1968 film remains in a league of its own, the flawed but fascinating sequels were still highly viewable and quite interesting in how they continued the series and boasted their own distinct look and feel.

There can be a tendency to overrate some of the Apes films -- in fact, the sequels' continued popularity seems to be the sign of fond nostalgia as opposed to the enduring strength of quality filmmaking (there are as many unintended laughs in the follow-ups as there are genuine ones) -- but nevertheless, there are few series in the annals of science-fiction cinema that have spurred as much debate and continued success as Fox's original series.

After years in development, where everyone from Oliver Stone to Arnold Schwarzenegger and James Cameron were once involved, Fox's new version of PLANET OF THE APES arrived in theaters last weekend to gigantic box-office revenues and none-too-surprising mixed reviews. (I love how some folks called the film "silly," as if a movie about a planet ruled by talking apes would be anything but!)

As a fan of the original films, I was ready to rate the picture strictly on a level with its predecessors. On the other hand, as a Tim Burton aficionado, I was able to enjoy this PLANET OF THE APES on its own terms and found it to be highly enjoyable.

So with the APES fresh in everyone's minds once again, here's my review of the new picture, along with a look at Image's sensational new, double-disc DVD of BEHIND THE PLANET OF THE APES, which will be in stores next week and should prove to be an essential purchase for Apes fans of all ages.

In Theaters

PLANET OF THE APES (***): Tim Burton's movies are always interesting -- if not from a story standpoint, then at least from a visual one. His "re-imagining" of PLANET OF THE APES may be short in some narrative aspects, but the film more than compensates for it in its fast pace, exciting action sequences, and fascinating visual design.

It feels like a Marvel comic-book come to life, a sci-fi adventure that kept me glued to my seat more than any other "event" movie released so far this summer. Burton has managed to make a movie that's both a semi-homage to the original films and a confident, exciting story all its own.

After Danny Elfman's bold, aggressive score opens up the front credits on a striking note, Mark Wahlberg suits up as an astronaut in the future who improbably ends up on a planet where once again apes have taken control over the human race and begun a civilization in their own image. On this planet, as opposed to the futuristic Earth depicted in the 1968 original, humans CAN talk, but are subverted by the apes, who use them as pets and slaves, bound in chains and kept in cages.

One female simian, played by Helena Bonham Carter, seeks to unite the two species, but the ruthless military general Thade (Tim Roth, in a superbly villainous role) wants to crush them all -- especially after hearing the true origins of the ape civilization from his ailing father (Charlton Heston, in a wonderful cameo for fans of the original).

Now, it's unlikely that anyone will equate Burton's PLANET OF THE APES with Franklin J. Schaffner's '68 version as a bona-fide sci-fi classic. The humans are the least interesting element of the William Broyles, Jr.-Mark Rosenthal-Lawrence Konner script, and Burton seems to have chopped away at a potential love story between Wahlberg and a human female (the lovely Estella Warren) in the interests of swift pacing. (Ditto for Kris Kristofferson's brief part as Warren's father.) Wahlberg himself, who has exuded charisma in much of his previous work, seems wooden and ill-at-ease here, the result of a screenplay that doesn't provide him with much to do.

On the other hand, Roth and Bonham Carter (who manages to be more appealing here than in any of her recent "human" parts) are both excellent, as are Michael Clarke Duncan as one of Roth's top aides and Paul Giamatti as a slimy "human trader," while Colleen Atwood's costumes and Philippe Rousselot's cinematography both put a unique spin on a world we have visited before. And in regards to Rick Baker's make-up effects, the Academy might as well forgo nominating other candidates for next year's Oscar after seeing the marvelously articulated simian designs the master genre craftsman has produced here.

Burton's version is less interested in political commentary than it is in sustaining a look and mood that is as fresh as it is familiar. After a somewhat leisurely opening, Burton moves the action along, cleverly dropping in time travel and parallel dimensions into the movie's plot (as well as a few elements of Pierre Boulle's novel that didn't make it into the '68 version), and enhancing the entire production with some thrilling battle scenes and a wacky, Burton-esque ending that makes more sense if you envision it as a fascinating set-up for a sequel as opposed to a homage to the original movie's Statue of Liberty twist finale.

The director also uses some of his trademark humor -- especially in Giamatti's role and the interplay between Wahlberg and Bonham Carter -- that lightens the material just enough without turning it into self- parody. (In this regard, the movie is easier to digest than the bleak, often pretentious storylines of the original series.)

Those who loved the original PLANET OF THE APES series for its political and social commentary may be highly disappointed in Burton's vision: his is a completely different film, respectful of its origins, with its own agenda. Gone are the heavy-handed, preachy messages and dry, talky sections that marred stretches of the original series. In its place is a lean, efficient piece of modern movie-making that suffers from the problems that plague most of today's big studio fare (as in a disjointed and at-times under-developed script), but yet utilizes its visual assets far more effectively than any of this year's other "blockbusters."

In fact, there's a genuine sense of enthusiasm evident in every aspect of filmmaking here that proved infectious to this reviewer. After another piffle of a movie summer, Tim Burton has produced a flawed but at-times inventive, sometimes ingenious, and constantly entertaining piece of escapist fare that monkeys around for all the right reasons. (PG-13, 110 mins)

More APES on DVD

If the release of the new APES has rekindled your interest in the original movies, you have several viewing options available to you on DVD.

You can find Franklin Schaffner's 1968 film at stores everywhere, but if you want to sit through the whole series, you'll have to wait a few weeks until Fox re-issues last year's PLANET OF THE APES: EVOLUTION box-set, which is the only place you can find the sequels on DVD (they're not available separately).

The original EVOLUTION box-set also featured a sixth bonus disc, "Behind the Planet of the Apes," which included the sensational 1998 AMC documentary on the series, complete with interviews and behind-the- scenes footage.

While that disc will not be a part of the re-issued set, Image Entertainment is releasing their own, deluxe edition of BEHIND THE PLANET OF THE APES ($24.98) on August 7 with an extensive assortment of brand-new supplements that will provide hours of enjoyment for any Apes-phile.

The 126-minute documentary is still, obviously, the centerpiece of the disc. Hosted by the late, great Roddy McDowall and featuring interviews with Charlton Heston, Kim Hunter, Ricardo Montalban, and behind-the-scenes talent like J. Lee Thompson and co-producer Mort Abrahams, the documentary offers a surprisingly honest assessment of the original film and its sequels (as well as the TV series). Most interesting is an extensive look at the 1968 film, a chronicle of the post-production cuts that plagued the fourth film, CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, and the budgetary restrictions that befell the fifth and last picture in the series, BATTLE FORÍ

The documentary even includes some priceless, rare footage of a "make-up test" featuring Edward G. Robinson (who knew he couldn't film the actual movie) and Heston, along with simians played by Linda "Nova" Harrison and James Brolin!

While excerpts of this footage are included in the documentary -- itself presented in a clearer transfer here than the Fox release -- Image's DVD offers plenty of extra goodies, including the ENTIRE, unexpurgated ten-minute test, newly remastered with Paul Frees' original narration introducing the footage to prospective studio execs.

That's the kind of extra that you'll find among the new supplements Image has included here. Among the other bonuses are a 1967 NATO Presentation Reel, featuring a 10-minute synopsis of the original movie with different music and dialogue; a four-minute '67 featurette shows conceptual art design and make-up; a 13-minute "Look Behind" from 1972 seems to have been produced for the release of CONQUEST, featuring behind-the-scenes footage from the first four films in the series; a ten-minute "Don Taylor Directs ESCAPE" looks at the filming of that entry's final carnival scene; a one-minute "J. Lee Thompson Directs CONQUEST" includes brief footage (culled from video tape) of behind-the-scenes activity; and a full slate of theatrical trailers rounds out the first disc.

The second disc features arguably the package's most valuable extra: an unedited, two-hour interview with Roddy McDowall shot for the documentary. McDowall -- whose remarkable performances were a principal reason for the success of the entire series -- eloquently speaks about everything from being buried under John Chambers' make-up to the development of the initial film's production (including Blake Edwards' original involvement, which isn't entirely divulged in the actual documentary).

Among the more interesting revelations: Roddy never even saw BENEATH, doesn't recall any of the specifics of BATTLE (including the Corringtons, who wrote the script) aside from it being "bloodless," and fondly recalls his work on the TV series, blaming incompetent CBS executives for its failure. He also discusses his love for the movies and the need for film preservation, and hearing him address these topics after a lifetime of working in and around Hollywood makes it worthwhile for any fan of the cinema.

It's a shame that McDowall couldn't have lived to see the release of Burton's film, as its success proves the late actor correct in how vibrant he believed the popularity of the series still was as recently as a few years ago.

A 20-minute assembly of soundless outtakes and dailies from the original PLANET OF THE APES, set to Jerry Goldsmith's original score, rounds out the release.

Image has done a superb job with the animated menu screens, featuring members of the group "Apemania" re-enacting the original film's "Hunt" sequence, and there's at least one photo gallery included as a hidden feature.

For anyone interested in the making of the PLANET OF THE APES films and the cultural phenomenon that followed their release, this DVD is a priceless package for all Apes aficionados.

Also New on DVD

Anyone who regularly reads this column knows of my fondness for bad movies -- movies so inept that they are often funnier than most actual comedies.

Peter Hyams' 1979 WWII romantic drama HANOVER STREET ($24.98) was a box-office flop that isn't quite as over-the-top as some have claimed it to be, but it is nevertheless an overwrought and often unbelievably ludicrous epic that seems to have been perfectly timed for DVD release with "Pearl Harbor" still fresh in the public consciousness.

The movie finds a lost Harrison Ford (who was, in Hyams' own words, "not so hot" at the box-office back in those days) as an American bomber pilot stationed in London. One day while walking down Hanover Street (but of course), he meets Lesley-Anne Down as a nurse and the two quickly find that conversation over tea isn't enough to satisfy their carnal cravings. A few quick rolls in the hay later, and soon Lesley's guilt begins to come into play -- she is, after all, married to well-meaning but boorish British military advisor Christopher Plummer, with a moppish daughter (future LETHAL WEAPON 2 ingenue Patsy Kensit) in tow.

After a slow-moving first hour, Hyams' film then picks up steam -- and unintended yuks -- once Plummer opts to storm into German territory WITH Ford (unknowing that he's been fooling around with his beloved) in an effort to steal secret Nazi documents. It all culminates in an action-filled climax, marking, pretty much, the first action in the entire film.

It's safe to say that HANOVER STREET has it all: a lush, romantic (and unreleased) score by John Barry that deserved a better fate in a superior film; superb cinematography by David Watkin making excellent use of the wide Panavision frame; performances by countless American actors living in England at the time (including Shane Rimmer, William Hootkins, and John "Cheers" Ratzenberger); and some of the most inane dialogue you'll ever hear in a movie produced on this kind of scale.

Sample dialogue exchange between Ford and Plummer:

PLUMMER: Why don't you look at yourself in the mirror [and see how brave you are?]

FORD: I can't, I'm driving!

Hyams has generally fared well making sci-fi/horror movies (CAPRICORN ONE, OUTLAND, THE RELIC, 2010) but screenplays have never been his strong suit. Here, the auteur directed from his own script, and the result is an at-times embarrassing but constantly entertaining throwback to the romantic days of WWII filmmaking yore, complete with wisecracking American pilots, stately Englishmen threatening to veer into self-parody with their earnestness, and an improbable, illogical climax that somehow puts a splendid cap on the entire show.

Columbia's DVD, out this week, features a surprisingly strong 2.35 transfer from source elements ranging from pristine to speckled and beat up. The Dolby Stereo sound has been encoded both as 4.0 Dolby Digital and 2.0 Dolby Surround, but only the 4.0 mix boasts an audible dialogue track (it doesn't help that Ford mumbles his way through the whole movie).

Hyams even contributes a rare commentary track here, and earns a few points in my book for being honest enough to admit how much of the movie didn't work. He also discusses his career-long love affair with Panavision (Hyams relates a great story about asking Steven Spielberg why he wasn't shooting JURASSIC PARK in scope) and about how he can't stand to sit through one of his movies after it's released -- and after seeing HANOVER STREET, who could blame him?

While Sam Raimi is off filming "Spider-Man," Paramount has just released his under-appreciated, spooky southern Gothic thriller THE GIFT (***, $29.98) on DVD.

Cate Blanchett stars as physic in a small Georgia town where the fiancee (Katie Holmes) of school principal Greg Kinnear is found drowned in a local swamp. Haunted by visions of the girl's murder, Blanchett seeks to sort out the suspects, from Kinnear to government agent Gary Cole and wife-abuser Keanu Reeves, who provides a solid character turn in the excellent ensemble cast (which also includes Giovanni Ribisi and Hilary Swank).

More suspenseful and satisfying than Raimi's last small-town character study (the somewhat OVER-praised "A Simple Plan"), THE GIFT resembles a more adult version of last summer's box-office hit "What Lies Beneath," with superb performances from Blanchett, Ribisi, and Reeves compensating for a few overly melodramatic moments in the Billy Bob Thornton-Tom Epperson screenplay.

Raimi, though, balances the domestic aspects of the material with the more outlandish, horrific moments exceedingly well, and the result is a compelling thriller that ranks as the director's finest, non-EVIL DEAD directorial outing to date.

Paramount's DVD features a superlative 1.85 transfer and active 5.1 Dolby Surround audio mix, highlighted by Christopher Young's effective score. A music video, the original trailer, and cast and crew interviews culled from the press junket round out a solid presentation for a creepy little chiller that's definitely worth a look if you missed it the first time around.

NEXT WEEK: The latest DVD reviews and news (as always), and maybe -- JUST maybe -- a special tribute to one of my all-time favorite Summer Movies, LIFEFORCE! Send all comments to and we'll catch you next time. (And welcome back, Nomar!)

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