Among Hollywood directors, Tim Burton has cultivated a shy-guy rep. Apparently, he's less inhibited when it comes to holding forth on our evolutionary predecessors. In a recent interview with an entertainment Web site, Burton revealed his less-than-charitable take on chimps: "I'm sick of people saying they're so cute ' they're the scariest thing I've ever seen. They look at you, they draw you in with their cuteness and then they can rip your arm off and bite your head off.... They are possessive, aggressive; I find them truly frightening." In other words, Burton probably has less in common with Jane Goodall than with Taylor, the blue-blooded astronaut Charlton Heston overacted in the original Planet of the Apes back in 1968.
Burton has another rep ' as a creator of nightmarishly beautiful films populated with flat characters (see Batman, Edward Scissorhands and The Nightmare Before Christmas). Sleepy Hollow, his last effort, succeeded despite its shortcomings, but his "reimagining" of Planet of the Apes isn't nearly as deft. Though Burton's monkey-hatred has resulted in plenty of memorable, menacing simians, the human characters couldn't be more forgettable.
Captain Davidson (Mark Wahlberg) is our hero this time out. An electromagnetic storm sends his l'il space pod hurtling through space and time, dumping him into a lush jungle just in time to be rounded up by the terrifying band of primates who occupy the upper rung of this world's evolutionary ladder.
The apes are led by General Thade (Tim Roth), a simian-bar-sinister who's equal parts Napoleon and Darth Vader. Roth throws everything he has into Thade ' darting eyes, angling posture, feral snarls ' and comes up with a sadistic devil in an exquisitely designed chimp suit. That suit comes courtesy of costume designer Rick Baker, whose wizardry is the heart of the film.
Ari (Helena Bonham-Carter), a sort of simian civil rights activist, believes in the radical notion of separate-but-equal status for humans. Bonham-Carter, deploying coy glances and radiating inner strength, creates a character full of defiance and soulful beauty.
The script monkeys with a love triangle between Davidson, Ari and Daena (Estella Warren), a human cave-girl cutie (hey, at least she gets to speak). Like everything else, it's woefully underdeveloped. Aside from a brief lip-brush between Ari and Davidson, Burton isn't willing to touch the subject of interspecies romance with a ten-foot banana.
The original quartet of Apes films succeeded, in a cheesy sort of way, in indicting America for a laundry list of social ills ' race relations, the conflict in Vietnam, rampant jingoism. Burton's film is less political, holding individuals responsible for both Davidson's predicament and the apes' fascist tendencies. So much for the story's social overtones.
As the humans stage their escape and brace for a final brouhaha with the apes, there's no sense of urgency. Wahlberg, stuck playing a disengaged protagonist, just wants to get the hell offa this rock. After about the first half-hour, so do we.
"Is there a soul in there?" Thade snarls in an early encounter with Davidson, as he attempts to reposition the space jockey's jawbone somewhere south of his chest cavity. Maybe one of these days it will occur to Burton to ask the same question of his films.