the history: In 1963, Pierre Boulle published his best-selling novel La Planéte des Singes in France. Translated Monkey Planet, the book became a major motion picture just five years later. It was of course called Planet of the Apes. The groundbreaking sci-fi tale starred Charlton Heston and was written in part by Twilight Zone scribe Rod Serling. A franchise was born. From there, 20th Century Fox released four sequels in four years; Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970), Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971), Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972) and Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973). An hour-long, live-action TV series aired in 1974 followed by a Saturday-morning cartoon in 1975. Action figures. Plastic models. Lunch boxes. Board games. Several years before George Lucas and Star Wars revolutionized product licensing, Planet of the Apes blazed its own profitable trail. Now, 33 years after John Chambers won an Oscar for makeup on the original film, modern effects master Rick Baker looks like the front-runner in this year’s race for his work on what director Tim Burton insists is not a remake or a sequel, but a “re-imagining” of Boulle’s novel. Prepare for toys, trading cards and lunch boxes all over again. A franchise is resurrected.
the story: As a member of the United States Air Force, Captain Leo Davidson trains chimpanzees to pilot shuttlecraft. The year is 2029. When one of his pupils disappears into a swirling astronomical disturbance, Leo bolts after the chimp, only to time warp through the same vortex and crash land on a planet ruled by talking apes. He is quickly captured along with other humans (including the lovely Daena) and sold to an orangutan slave trader named Limbo, a cowardly opportunist who provides the movie’s comic relief. A sympathetic chimp named Ari, a senator’s daughter who is basically an animal rights activist in reverse (she opposes humans being branded, kept as pets and having their natural habitat destroyed) befriends Leo and accompanies his troupe on a reconnaissance mission. If he can retrieve an electronic gizmo from his downed pod, he can reconnect with his starship. The ragtag band is pursued by a simian army led by Thade, a tyrannical fascist who believes that (to borrow a line from 1968) the only good human is a dead human. When the Homo sapiens and beasts collide, there’s no telling how it will ultimately affect planetary history.
positive elements: Leo’s sense of duty and friendship compel him to try and rescue the chimp he’s training as a pilot (though he deliberately disobeys orders and puts his colleagues in danger as a result). The selfless Ari shows kindness to humans on numerous occasions, jeopardizing her own social status in her narrow-minded culture. Daena refuses to flee captivity without her father and siblings. When Leo is tempted to shoot Limbo, Ari advises him, “If you kill him, you’ll only lower yourself to his level.” The film reminds us of the need to be good stewards of our natural resources, though in places it gets quite preachy about its environmentalism. The more noble characters decry the fact that cruelty is rewarded with power, and dream of a day when both species can peacefully coexist in an atmosphere of respect. [Spoiler Warning] By the end, that harmony does appear possible as Attar decides to leave the graves of slain warriors in the great conflict unmarked (“No one will be able to tell apes from humans. They will be mourned together as it should be”).
spiritual content: Because the movie’s spirituality and evolutionary theory are so tightly interwoven, it makes sense to discuss both here. Politically leveraged primates debate whether or not humans have souls. The presupposition throughout is that apes somehow evolved from humans, who are considered a much lower rung on the evolutionary ladder. Ordinarily, this would be a big concern, but in light of the time-travel story’s wild twists and turns (especially the very last one), the whole concept of men and apes being anything but separately created “kinds” collapses like a house of cards. It gets pushed to illogical, laughable limits. Reviewers have been asked not to disclose certain revelations, so I won’t go into detail. But trust me. Even sci-fi fans who embrace the film on its own terms will encounter gaping chasms of logic and wind up shaking their heads at the scientific hokum.
More subtle and disturbing to me is how one gorilla’s sincere religious faith (a strange hybrid of Christian and Eastern influences shared by many of the primates) plays itself out. Early on, Attar demands that his peers bow their heads and say grace. He prays to a “holy father” who is expected to return and restore peace. The spiritual beast is actually addressing Semos, who turns out the be the father of apes, but not the divine creator he thinks he is. As details of the simians’ origin unfold, Attar’s faith turns out to be part myth, part ignorance. He finally concludes, “Everything I have believed is a lie!” What remains is a spiritual vacuum. All that’s left in this cinematic universe is the circumstantial evolution of a single species without concern or regard for cosmic creation. And that’s okay with Burton and Co. So not only does the script build on the rickety foundation of macroevolution, but it does so at the expense of orthodox religion.
One last thought on this subject. It’s not uncommon for secular filmmakers to unwittingly play to the divine drama planted within each of us by God. And this movie does so. As Ari bids farewell to Leo, she says, “Someday they will tell a story about a human who came from the stars and changed our world. And some will say it’s just a fairy tale …” Why does so much sci-fi hinge on the heroics of otherworldly saviors? From Superman to E.T., it appears there’s a Christ-shaped hole audiences don’t even know they have, and it’s being filled by cleverly conceived substitutes. Of course, the opportunity awaiting Christians is to draw upon these cultural models to point fans of fiction to the real Hero, Jesus.
sexual content: A little sexual tension exists as Ari and Daena vie for Leo’s affection. Just as a chimpanzee in a nightgown begins to perform a wild mating dance for her turned-on hubby, they are interrupted by intruders.
violent content: While intense at times (hence the film’s rating), most of the combat is bloodless and much is left to the viewer’s imagination. People are clubbed, whacked, netted, tackled, beaten, kicked, punched and have torches thrown at them by their hairy oppressors. Primate children throw stones at caged humans. Flesh is seared with a branding iron. A ruthless military commander, Thade viciously murders two of his own soldiers in order to protect a secret. He also slashes a man from behind. Another has his neck snapped. A final battle between humans and apes includes warriors being cut by swords, run through with daggers and (offscreen) stabbed with a sharp metal helmet. Attar and Krull fight to the death. A nuclear-powered blast decimates a legion of ape soldiers. Very few guns appear in this version of the sci-fi tale, but Leo and Thade take several shots at each other (Thade gets his weapon from his dad, an ape portrayed with a touch of irony by National Rifle Association president Charlton Heston).
crude or profane language: About a dozen profanities—all h— and d–n except for several exclamatory uses of Jesus’ name.
drug and alcohol content: None until the very end. Ever the opportunist, Limbo discovers a bottle of pills and views it as a chance to open a brand-new trade with young humans (“OK kids, who wants to buy some aspirin”). It’s obvious the filmmakers (and the audience I sat with) thought this joke about peddling dope to children was a lot funnier than I did.
conclusion: This film is going to be huge. Not only will it attract scores of young males hungry for an adrenaline rush, but racing toward the box-office ten strides ahead of them will be their thirtysomething dads. There’s a built-in curiosity for those whose stomachs sank when, as adolescents themselves, they watched a loinclothed Charlton Heston encounter the ruins of Lady Liberty. In fact, to appeal to those long-time fans, a few key lines from the original film find their way into this script (an homage that comes off sounding rather silly).
On the whole, Burton’s “re-imagining” of the story is effective and entertaining. Its brisk pace and impressive makeup get the job done, despite shortcomings in the storytelling and a few inconsistent performances. What pleased me most was the restraint shown by director Tim Burton, who has exhibited a disturbingly dark side with films such as Sleepy Hollow, Batman Returns, Beetlejuice, The Nightmare Before Christmas and the maddeningly mean-spirited Mars Attacks. Here, he more than respects his PG-13 rating by keeping language, graphic violence and sexual material to a minimum. Yes, there’s brutality, several misuses of the Lord’s name and spiritual elements that warrant mature discussion. Planet of the Apes is definitely not for everyone. But if thoughtful parents comfortable with what the franchise produced 30 years ago choose to accompany their older teens, this thrill-packed adventure may bridge a generation gap and inspire meaningful dialogue.