Here we go again. Summer is still upon us, and Hollywood keeps slinging one costly number after another into our local multiplexes. This weekend brings us something of a new spin on that golden oldie “Planet of the Apes,” 28 years after its first release.
Most of this summer’s audiences were yet to be born, so slipping in Charlton Heston, star of the original film, as a dying chimpanzee is a joke that largely passes right over the heads of the kids in the movie houses this time around. Of course, done up in Rick Baker’s splendid primate makeup, who can recognize Heston anyway? He’s opposed on his deathbed to the use of guns – a sentiment that raised a few giggles from members of the preview audience recognizing the venerable actor’s distinctive voice.
The year is 2029. Mark Wahlberg is drilling a charming chimp in a space suit named Pericles aboard a massive space station, when the commander spots a horrific electro-magnetic storm and orders Pericles up in a pod to check it out. Wahlberg protests that a human’s observations will be more useful than an animal’s, but his commander considers human life more valuable. So off goes Pericles.
But Wahlberg, like any valiant young hero of a summer movie, hops into a pod himself and takes off. (You might have thought after his experience in last summer’s big movie, “The Perfect Storm,” Wahlberg would have learned to steer clear of storms, but no.) The visuals match up with those in “Contact,” which threw Jody Foster into such a wild time warp. His pod crash-lands into what looks like the set for a re-make of “Tarzan of the Apes.”
In seconds, our hero is caught in a rush of ragged people running for their lives, and hot after them gorillas in pretty snazzy-looking armor. We quickly learn these humans are treated like slaves or animals. The powerful primates make scornful remarks about how they smell. A pretty and tearful little blonde girl is bought as a pet for a child chimp. The slave dealer reminds the parent chimp that he’ll have to get rid of the girl when she reaches puberty. “You can’t trust them after puberty, you know.”
In case the audience hasn’t cottoned on to certain parallels with incidents from our not too distant American history, who turns up but a primate human-rights activist, Helena Bonham Carter, done up fetchingly as a fairly graceful chimp, whose dialogue could have been scripted by the ACLU. She is the daughter of a leading, and fairly tolerant, senator who I didn’t recognize as that distinguished English actor, David Warner, until afterwards reading the press kit.
In no time, sympathetic vibrations have been set off between senator’s daughter and bewildered astronaut (“You seem different from the others,” she murmurs.) To balance the good primates, we get a real baddie in a chimp general played by Tim Roth, who acts more with his teeth than I’d ever seen an actor. And does his stunt man ever get a workout. Leaping, somersaulting, scaling up the sides of walls, taking running jumps onto horses, mixing movements borrowed from both “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” and “The Matrix,” stuntman Terry Notary (formerly a performer at the Cirque du Soleil) really earned his money.
Wicked General Thade can’t stand humans and their behavior. He’s a real Simon Legree of a primate. He wants to wipe the whole human lot from the face of his planet. When the senator’s daughter runs off with the humans, he convinces her father to give the military the green light to destroy all humankind.
By now, our brave astronaut has led his people (shades of another movie, “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome”) to ruins sacred to the ancestor primates. Lo and behold, he realizes these are the ruins of the very space station he set out from just a week or so before. Talk of what a good electromagnetic storm can do about warping time. There’s of course an absolutely horrendous battle, in which many men and beasts die. And a little silver pod comes whizzing down from outer space and oh well why spoil it for you?
Somewhere along in there before the final freeze frame, someone actually gets off that line of Rodney King’s: “Can’t we all just get along?” The film is so politically correct, it makes your back molars positively ache.