Hear me out: why Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes isn't a bad movie

The latest in our series of writers standing up for loathed films is an impassioned defence of the 2001 take on the 60s classic

Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes is a remake that has the forward momentum and expansive qualities of a sequel; a love letter assuming a familiarity with the 1968 sci-fi classic, counting on our expectations so that it could playfully thwart them.

The 20-year-old Planet of the Apes was the best version of fan service, arriving well before we knew what fan service would be: think recent franchise sequels like Star Wars: The Force Awakens or Jurassic World that are precious about colouring within the lines, often behaving more like remakes than Burton’s Apes.

In the latter, Mark Wahlberg, an admittedly bland alternative to Charlton Heston, plays an astronaut who once again crash lands into a futuristic society where apes capture and enslave humans in an evident reversal of evolution.

The surprise in the original (spoiler alert!) is that the seemingly foreign planet ruled by apes is actually a post-apocalyptic Earth. The revelation arrives in a scorching and iconic final image where Heston’s George Taylor discovers the Statue of Liberty strewn about as rubble.

In his blockbuster spectacle, Burton levels up the time travel mechanics to approach Tenet-like complexity. And he manages to squeeze a couple OF genuinely breathtaking surprises that stay true to the spirit of the 1968 film. But audiences weren’t as appreciative of the inexplicable cliff-hanger ending.

Burton’s Planet of the Apes is widely maligned. It’s got a 44% critics rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a 27% audience score. The public were keener on the Rise, Dawn and War of the Planet of the Apes prequel cycle that would follow a decade later. Those films stripped down the sci-fi premise, serving up an explainer with a real-world aesthetic (ironically, with heavy CGI) that narrates in overwrought detail how apes could come to rule an inhumane society.

The recent Apes cycle leans towards the “serious” affect of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, while Burton’s Planet of the Apes unsurprisingly hews closer to the sexy, stylized and macabre take on Gotham in Batman and Batman Returns. Maybe it’s just a matter of preference that I lean towards Burton’s elevated, B-movie funhouse, enjoying fine details like interspecies sexual tension (a dialed-up version of what’s in the original) or a hilarious display of ape foreplay. Glenn Shadix’s horny hooting and hollering and the seductive dance from Lisa Marie (Burton’s girlfriend at the time) are particularly unforgettable.

In a time before CGI completely took over, Burton relished what actors accomplish with prosthetics. Paul Giamatti, Helena Bonham Carter and Tim Roth chew scenery while hunching and hoisting their bodies to mimic simian behaviour.

Burton’s Planet of the Apes is also popcorn fare that doesn’t sacrifice the striking visual treats: a playful rotating camera that reveals why rose petals are falling upwards; an army of apes falling into formation at the pace of dominoes; the numerous visual nods to the original, including a twist on the Statue of Liberty’s fossilized crown.

But none of the images in Burton’s movie or the prequel trilogy for that matter even try to be as implicating or impactful as those in Franklin J Schaffner’s Planet of the Apes. That film, which was playing In theatres weeks after the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, showed ape soldiers posing for a photo over a pile of human carcasses. In another scene, Schaffner’s civil rights era allegory about equality and justice depicts a courtroom scene with apes positioned like the three wise monkeys (“hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil”).

The most unfortunate departure for Burton’s Planet of the Apes is that it gestures towards the civil rights era politics of the original without engaging in meaningful ways, as if inhumanity towards Black people wasn’t as urgent at the dawn of the 21st century. But that doesn’t mean his Planet of the Apes is completely apolitical. Tim Roth’s sneering and menacing General Thade is like a forecast for the kind military maneuvering to come after 9/11, which took place weeks after the movie was released.

The most memorable scene in Burton’s Planet of the Apes is also its most subversively political. The scene features original franchise star Charlton Heston. He plays the ailing father to Roth’s General Thade, occupying a villainous knowledge keeper role similar to Maurice Evans’ Dr. Zaius in the 1968 film.

In that scene, Heston’s Zaius warns Thade of the threat humans pose by pointing him to a man-made invention: a handgun.

At the time, Heston was the president of the National Rifle Association (NRA). A year before Burton’s Planet of the Apes hit theatres, Heston was at an NRA rally, countering post-Columbine sentiments for gun control by hoisting a replica musket in the air and shouting defiantly at reformists “From my cold, dead hands!”

Burton gave us Heston as a dying elderly ape, quivering at mankind’s ability to produce weapons. “Their ingenuity goes hand in hand with their cruelty,” he says, in the ultimate self-own. “No creature is as devious, as violent.”

  • Planet of the Apes is available on HBO Max in the US and to rent digitally in the UK


Radheyan Simonpillai

The GuardianTramp

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