There’s so much in 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment’s new "Planet of the Apes" DVD that if I don’t get right to it right away, we all might meet our extinction before this review is over.
It’s 2029 when the USAF research space station Oberon encounters a swirling electrical space storm. Calling upon the services of Pericles, a chimpanzee trained by astronaut Leo Davidson (Mark Wahlberg) to venture out in a space pod to investigate the electromagnetic cumulus, the pod mysteriously disappears into the void. Obstinate to his commander’s orders, Leo secretly sets off in another pod to follow Pericles. He, too, is whisked through the mysterious storm that transports him through time and space to a primitive planet where apes are in command and humans, though not mute, are regarded only for their value in servitude and shooting practice.
Rescued from the militant gorillas led by the sadistic Thade (Tim Roth), Leo is befriended by a sympathetic female chimpanzee, Ari (Helena Bonham Carter) who leads Leo out of Ape City and toward a forbidden zone where the answers to mankind’s decline and apes’ ascendancy may be found. Of course, Thade has already learned of the secret of humankind as imparted to him by his father Zaius (Charlton Heston in an obvious cameo). Now, with the Senator Sandar’s (David Warner) approval to kill humans on sight, Thade is bent on eliminating Leo before he can discover how and why this upside-down planet came about.
It all sounds very much like the winning premise that made 1968’s "Planet of the Apes" such a compelling and captivating motion picture. And, in this updated version, all the pieces are in place to successfully retell this terrific tale in a most technically-enabled and truly believable fashion – all pieces except a story, that is. And, following suit of this trend of mindless Summer effects-fests, this new "Planet of the Apes" was doomed to quick extinction before the first twenty-four-and-a-half frames of film were in the can.
Having loved the original Apes Saga for decades now, I made sure I approached director Tim Burton’s version objectively, without unduly high expectations or preconceived contempt – he and his crew, though, made sure whatever expectations I might have would be dashed and that I would be brimming with contempt before the film ended. How is it that today’s filmmakers and film-backers can consistently take proven product and sour it so thoroughly? And, when will the same folks learn that big-dollar effects do not make a motion picture? No wonder more filmgoers are staying away from theaters -- $40 to take the family out for a hat-box of popcorn, a tankard of Coke, and then be greeted by this manner of aggravating storytelling is simply not worth the gamble.
Now, in all fairness, this film is quite a technical achievement, especially makeup master Rick Baker’s ape designs. Visually, there’s plenty to see, plenty to believe, but little reason to care as, within the frenetic first fifteen minutes of the film we’ve quickly met Wahlberg’s character who dashes off into an electrical storm, crashes on an unknown planet, meets primitive humans, is chased by an army of apes, and is locked in a jail wagon. Compared to the original, where we’re given time to learn more about the astronauts, their unknown planet, and the shocking revelation of their soon-to-be captors, this new version simply dispenses with character development and, sadly, the audience as well. And, I guess I lied earlier since I suppose I did have a pre-conceived aversion to Mark Wahlberg in the lead role. Not to disappoint me, he appeared to generally pout his way through this one, averting eye contact and rebuffing those about him in a manner more fitting to a snotty teenager role than any sort of heroic protagonist. If this is 2001’s answer to Charlton Heston, we’re screwed.
Can anything be salvaged of this ill-fated planet? Thankfully, the DVD is well done in presentation and fringe content. Naturally, the image comes to us by way of an anamorphically enhanced widescreen presentation framed at 2.35:1. Visually, the image is nothing short of pristine, offering a rich, colorful, and virtually flawless rendition. Though intentionally given a slightly dusty and subdued look, the picture is quite striking thanks to accurate fleshtones, deep shadows, and excellent detail. It’s clear to say that artifacting and harsh edge enhancement should nary be found in this time of DVD technology.
Audibly, "Apes" roars to life with excellent soundtracks presented in your choice of 5.1 DTS or 5.1 Dolby Surround. Ambient sounds are almost always present and the low-end response is fun to crank up and let rumble. The dialog is never obscured during the show and Danny Elfman’s score is nicely represented throughout.
Extra features are ripe for the picking on this two-disc set (requiring an "Extras Map" to be printed on the disc’s insert). Boasting "over 13 hours of primate-packed extras," it’s no wonder it’s taken so long to give the entire package a thorough look-see. The two running commentaries – one with director Burton and the other with composer Elfman – are sadly disappointing, belying the fact that their segments of an interview placed over segments of the film with unbearably long sequences where no comments are offered. But, if you want to learn more about this apes incarnation, feast your eyes on Disc Two’s six different documentaries that take you all the way from "Ape School" to "Makeup" to "Ape Stunts" – and everything in between. These documentaries are quite good and are, perhaps, the best behind-the-scenes featurettes I’ve seen. Then there are five extended scenes, a promotional HBO special that follows actor Michael Clarke Duncan on a day on the Planet of the Apes, multi-angle scene analysis, concept art, trailers and TV spots, and even a music video. This is indeed a densely populated planet as far as extras go. And, early versions of the DVD also included a bonus CD-ROM that includes and additional number of interviews, featurettes, promotional material, and character biographies.
So, as DVDs go, this one’s a real mixed bag for me. Visually, the film presents nice eye and ear candy, excellent presentation, and generous extras. Sadly, it’s an indifferent plot in the feature attraction that leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth – and if I were the cynical type, I’d have to wonder if the fat load of extras was designed to distract me from the film’s inherent shortcomings. Likely, this will be one of those discs I’ll pull out every once in a while to give another spin, then quickly be reminded why I don’t watch it more often. Sorry, Apes and Burton fans, but this one just doesn’t cut it. I say stick with the originals – they’re still the best.