Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Re-imagining the Planet of the Apes

I saw the original "Planet of the Apes" at the old single–screen theater in my hometown.

As I have mentioned here before, it typically took movies a year or two to get to my small hometown so it wasn't a new release when I saw it. In fact, my memory is that the first sequel — and, possibly, the second — had been released to the theaters before I finally saw the original "Planet of the Apes" for the first time.

But that didn't matter to me. I enjoyed the movie very much, and I have watched it several times since.

Fast forward about 30 years.

On this day in 2001, a remake of the "Planet of the Apes" was released. Movies make the theatrical rounds a lot faster today than they did when I was a child. I was mildly curious about the movie — and I had every intention of seeing it at the theater (so I could adequately compare that experience to the one from my childhood) — but I let too much time pass in the summer of 2001.

And, before I knew it, the movie couldn't be found at the theaters — and then there were those terrorist attacks on September 11, and, well, if you're at least old enough to drive, you're old enough to remember how that altered lives in both permanent and temporary ways.

Anyway, I was distracted from it, and I didn't get around to seeing it until many years later.

By that time, I had read a good deal about it. I knew that it wasn't a literal remake — more of a conceptual one, what is called a "re–imagining" of a story — and I knew this one would be radically different.

And, when I did see it, I must admit there were several things about it that I liked:
  • The special effects were impressive.

    If you want to see how far special effects have come in a relatively short period of time, watch the first "Planet of the Apes" and then watch the remake.

    In fact, as I watched the remake, I could only guess what the original would have been like if those effects had been available.

  • I must also admit that, for the most part, the apes in the remake had more personality than the ones in the original. At least, I saw what appeared to be more genuine emotion on the faces of the apes in the remake.

    If an ape was angry, you could see the anger. If an ape was amused, you could see mirth. If an ape was in love, you could see passion.

    Now, back when I saw the original, I thought the makeup was good. But, when I saw the remake, it made the makeup in the original look like the rubber masks with holes for the wearer's eyes, nose and mouth that people have been buying at novelty shops for years.

    I suppose that is a credit to the enormous strides that were made in makeup in the intervening 33 years.

  • For that matter, the humans in the 2001 version were much more advanced than the humans in the original.

    They weren't mute, the way they were in the first movie, which obviously changed the nature of their relationship with the apes. If they could speak and be understood, that elevated them above the role of animal and household pet.

    The introduction of humans' ability to speak clearly made it essential that the story be re–imagined. I could understand that.

  • I wasn't impressed with the story, though, or some of the actors, but I was impressed with elements of both — sometimes simultaneously.

    Take, for example, Paul Giamatti's performance as Limbo, an orangutan who trades in humans.

    Giamatti has done some noteworthy things in the decade since he appeared as Limbo, but I always think of that performance when I think of him.

    That's kind of ironic, too, I guess. I mean, if you didn't know that was Giamatti underneath all that makeup, you would never guess it.

    Anyway, I was especially fond of his character's sales pitch for children: "The little ones make wonderful pets, but be sure you get rid of it by puberty. One thing you don't want in your house is a human teenager!"

    Most veteran parents probably would agree.

  • And, of course, I could appreciate — on multiple levels — the irony of Charlton Heston's cameo appearance.
I couldn't deny it. There were parts of that movie that, as Roger Ebert wrote in his review, were enjoyable, admirable, even likable — but not throughout.

The sum of its parts neither met nor exceeded the parts by themselves — which were good, they just lacked unity.

Perhaps the best examples were the respective endings. The ending of the 1968 version was clear. It made the original story complete — yet it set the audience up for a potential sequel (and there were four of them).

In 2001, the ending was much more ambiguous — and less satisfying. To date, there have been no sequels (although I have heard that an August release is planned for a prequel).

"Ten years from now, it will be the 1968 version that people are still renting," Ebert wrote.

Well, here we are, 10 years later — and, while I have no numbers to back it up, I presume Ebert was right.

If you want to examine specific aspects of filmmaking, I would have no trouble recommending the 2001 version.

But if it is a more complete cinematic experience that you seek, I would have to recommend the original.