Rewrites: Burton’s Planet of the Apes
What’s wrong with Tim Burton’s “re-imagined” Planet of the Apes? Practically everything, but there are two big problems: it doesn’t evoke a sense of wonder, and it doesn’t create a sense of strangeness or weirdness about this planet of the apes.
No sense of wonder
Someone such as Spielberg is very good at this (i.e., when limiting the contenders to Hollywood genre films–outside of that restricted space, few can touch someone such as Andrei Tarkovsky). Think of the aliens and spaceships in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Think of the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. The people in those films react as people normally would when encountering things and events that are a little out of the ordinary. They express curiosity and awe.
Here’s how Wahlberg reacts to what he sees on the monkey planet:
Can you guess what he’s looking at in each of the above shots? More importantly, which one shows him looking at talking apes?
Is it the first one? Nope. In that one he’s looking at his ship as it sinks:
Is it the second one? Nope. He’s looking at other humans:
How about the third one? No, he’s not looking at anything, really. He’s thinking something like, “My friends are out there, somewhere.”
If you guessed #4, you are correct:
It’s not just the actor that gets in the way of a sense of wonder. It’s also the direction and the writing. At no point does the script help Wahlberg with dialogue such as “Talking apes! It’s amazing. I wish my friends could see this!”
Instead, the film makes it seem that this is all in the course of a normal day’s work for Wahlberg. Talking apes? No big deal. He’s already been working with a super intelligent ape, so this is hardly different. All he’s interested in is getting out of there. He shows no scientific curiosity about this fantastic planet, yet the opening of the film shows him working with scientists.
Second main problem: no sense of the strange
I experience a greater sense of strangeness and disorientation when it’s my first day on a new job than Mark Wahlberg apparently experiences on a planet run by monkeys. After being on this strange planet for less than a day, he’s already leading the natives through the jungle:
Why? Because he has a compass.
How can you have a sense of the strange if you know exactly where you are going? If you act as if you’ve gone down these paths many times already? If you act as if you’ve seen the original Planet of the Ape movies a zillion times? You might expect the film to lead the character into some sort of disillusionment. It doesn’t, except perhaps at the very end when he travels back to Earth expecting to return to his familiar home, but instead finds it very different. Here’s his reaction to that:
Same old, same old.
However, this problem is not exclusive to Wahlberg. Here’s a shot of the other main characters watching Wahlberg’s spaceship lift off:
Do they look like they are watching a spaceship fly away? Do they act like someone who has not even seen a gun, let alone a spaceship, before Wahlberg’s arrival just days before.
Perhaps Burton is the biggest believer on the planet (our planet, not the monkey one) in the The Kuleshov Effect, thinking it capable of compensating for not having Johnny Depp in the cast. If so, his belief is painfully misguided.
So here’s my own “re-imagining”
- The original novel took place on a monkey planet that used technology contemporary with ours. The apes drove cars, flew planes, used guns. I want an ape society that is a reversal of the power relations of our would. As Heston’s ape character says to General Thane, “In the time before time, we were the slaves, and the humans were the masters.” Now it’s humans who are slaves, and apes who are masters. Making ape society more primitive than human society obscures the reversal aspect, and we don’t want that. So it’s an ape society with apes playing baseball, driving fast cars, and drinking beer while watching TV.
- To maintain the sense of the strange, the ape world will be revealed slowly through the eyes of the outsider. Shortly after he sees a talking ape for the first time, the outsider will be hit and knocked unconscious. Treated for his injuries with narcotics, he will remain groggy and semi-conscious for a stretch. Everything will appear as if in a dream. He does not believe that he saw a talking ape. His vision will be blocked by bandages, bars, etc. The light will be either too dark or too bright to see anything clearly. He will be disoriented and see and hear only bits and pieces. Little about what he sees makes complete sense to him.
- The apes will not speak English. It will turn out to be a sort of pidgin English, a mix of English as well as other languages, but this only gradually becomes apparent. The important thing is that the human outsider has trouble understanding what is going on.
- Gradually more of the ape society is revealed to the outsider. At first, he thinks the apes act very strangely, but slowly, bit by bit, their customs start to seem familiar and he realizes that ape customs seem familiar because they are actually variations of the human customs that the outsider knows very well.
- As in the original film, the outsider eventually figures out that he is on Earth. The slaves that were oppressed have in turn become the oppressors.
- The outsider leads a revolt of the human slaves. Some humans suggest that it’s not right to make the apes slaves again, but they are overruled and the revolt succeeds. The humans re-enslave the apes.
- But we end with the apes plotting a revolt. The cycle continues.