Heston Is the Highpoint in Planet of the Apes

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Planet of The Apes
Directed by Tim Burton

Charlton Heston reveals the discreet charm of the Hollywood conservative in Tim Burton’s reimagined Planet of the Apes. In the 1968 original Heston starred as an American astronaut who discovers a future evolutionary reversal–a society ruled by apes, with humans as the captive species. Now, in an unbilled cameo, Heston plays one of the apes passing a legacy of violence and vengeance to his son Thade (a snarling, snorting Tim Roth). Once again evolution has played tricks on mankind by reasserting the atavistic animal within. And Heston displays this with rousing, hilarious aplomb. You might recall Laurence Olivier’s deathbed scene in Brideshead Revisited but Heston’s from-the-mountaintop voice ("Damn them all to hell!") is irresistible. It echoes through one’s movie memories–parodying aristocratic hubris and Heston himself.

Bequeathing an ancient relic–a gun–to a pre-Neanderthal is an irony surely not lost on NRA zealot Heston who, earlier this year, appeared as a dangerous, rifle-toting nut case in the Warren Beatty comedy Town & Country. When one of Burton’s primates sees a gun and asks, "Who would invent such a thing?" the obvious answer to the question resonates as Heston’s private joke–a punchline that hunts down liberal alarmists in their tracks. Fully cognizant of the misuse of firearms, Heston’s gag doesn’t deny the risks that guns entail. (The sense of the scene recalls that Simpsons joke when Homer, told he can only purchase a gun after an eight-day security check, whines, "But I’m angry now!") Heston’s scene reflects the gun control debate with imaginative complexity–as such sophisticated moralists Sam Peckinpah and John Boorman once were able to do. He goes pop–without isolating the issue or taking it past ambivalence to partisan oversimplification. In fact, Heston’s character curses "the power of invention, the power of technology... Against this our [physical] strength means nothing." It’s a startlingly humane plea coming from a dying simian patriarch who was a nearly pacifist ruler hiding the secret of weaponry. Knowing the catastrophe of humans’ unchecked aggression, Heston warns, "No creature is as dangerous...as violent." This twist is richer than any right- or left-wing rhetoric.

It’s also more honestly appealing than the messages in action films by latter-day Hollywood conservatives–and even the kill-happy indulgences made by pseudo-liberals. Heston’s emoting reminds one that earlier generations of Hollywood conservatives professed closer-to-liberal social views than politically opportunistic stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis. Next to those lightweights, marbleized and granitic Heston acts out genuine truths. Remember, in the original film Heston evoked the nation’s call for racial equality (he even made a timely appearance in Sidney Lumet’s 1970 Martin Luther King documentary, King: A Filmed Record... Montgomery to Memphis). After his first-act career as a grandiose movie legend playing prophets and he-men in Ben-Hur, The Greatest Show on Earth, Moses in The Ten Commandments, Michelangelo in The Agony and the Ecstasy and Peckinpah’s Major Dundee, Heston became a fading imperialist icon facing an uncertain future in Will Penny, The Hawaiians, Soylent Green and–no pun intended–The Omega Man. Into a Hollywood era, dominated by anti-Vietnam, Watergate-era cynicism, Heston acquired camp status onscreen (the hunk who would be Olivier, lending his stentorian voice to film versions of Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra as well as Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet) and offscreen infamy as an unembarrassed Republican, even heading Ronald Reagan’s Task Force on the Arts and Humanities. Since then Heston’s political positions, most recently as a spokesman for the National Rifle Association, have tainted his second-act renown.

But in a single scene of this new Planet of the Apes (and his farcical Town & Country turn), Heston wittily recasts his own fame–and his recent political stances–in terms that are both unbowed and popular. Imagine Moses not dropping those tablets but pitching them at bleeding hearts. Even flat on his back in monkey fur, Heston’s grand, larger-than-life in ways that the older actors in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator lacked the humor (and direction) to pull off. Heston benefits from Burton’s own parodistic regard of pop culture; they’re both amused by its excesses while finding ways to revitalize and make it relevant. Burton’s remake needs the kick (and the justification) Heston provides. But Heston also uses this film to speak to our culture in terms that the current era of soured, dishonest political discourse rarely allows. He turns his offscreen fulminating, his stolid self-righteousness, into satire, metaphor and a humanizing, if hairy, wink.


A pop star in his own first-act career, Mark Wahlberg lacks Heston’s imposing stance. But as in Boogie Nights and Three Kings, Wahlberg reflects our unheroic selves, which brings this Planet of the Apes closer to contemporary agonies. Portraying Capt. Leo Davidson’s arrogant need to gratify his ego through one reckless act (saving the test-pilot chimp he poorly trained), Wahlberg triggers an interplanetary, millennial catastrophe. Traveling through an electromagnetic storm, Davidson lands on a topsy-turvy planet that Burton depicts as a modern, dark myth. Though funny, it’s not simply a cute remake. As Greene noted about the "dystopian" Planet series, "The filmmakers took the conflicts of the time, intensified and escalated them, and refused to imagine their successful resolution." That great final image from the 1968 film–a half-buried Statue of Liberty (complexly reimagined in A.I.)–also gets Burton’s ghoulish political revision.

Every ape closeup is magnificent. Rick Baker’s makeup design improves on John Chambers’ original concepts, fulfilling Burton’s fascination with the monstrous and outre as normal. Philippe Rousselot’s photography–gray, brown vistas with hints of blue and green–coheres Burton’s vision of a different world by returning mystery to our own. The climactic battle transposes imagery from Westerns–underscoring issues of expansion and dispossession of native lands. As in Sleepy Hollow, Burton achieves the look of a great movie though only suggesting what that might have been. His highpoint (after Heston) is a montage of the apes’ bedtime rituals interrupted by the humans’ escape. It’s brilliant–an abolitionist fairytale told by a surrealist prankster.

As two of the humanlike apes, Helena Bonham Carter and Tim Roth give the most affecting performances of their careers; she’s larky and his caged paroxysm of gunfire is memorable. Screenwriters Lawrence Konner & Mark Rosenthal plus William Broyles Jr. (who wrote Zemeckis’ Cast Away) are mindful that the story’s original allegory should reflect modern social behavior, even if satirically. Burton had already made the sharpest American satire of the past decade in Mars Attacks!, blending social burlesque with sci-fi looniness and pure pop culture anarchy. So the good, double-layered satire at an apes’ dinner party is not a surprise: the discussion turns to "The Human problem"; one wealthy ape complains, "All we got was a welfare state that nearly bankrupted us"; and another gripes, "The cities have enough diversity already," speaking against social reform. (Like Heston’s speech, these comments are no longer plainly conservative or liberal.) Among the struggling slaves, one of the blacks grabs an informant, saying, "This is one of the house humans. He thinks he’s better than us, he thinks he’s part ape." We’ve heard these expressions before but can chuckle at their meaning in these changed circumstances, especially the ironic appeal, "Can’t we all get along?"

Eventually, though, there’s a failure of nerve in this revisionist Planet of the Apes– noticeably when the final scene punks out on what should have been a Rodney King ending (Wahlberg’s Davidson at the wrong end of a nightstick). Burton’s satire loses its sting. That rumored finale might have extended Heston’s agitprop and brought the cautionary theme of racial domination to bold completion. Hollywood’s always afraid of provocateurs, that’s why Heston’s onscreen political address has to be sly. Fifty years of filmmaking have taught him that winning audiences’ hearts and minds requires a politician to show a movie star’s charm.

Rush Hour 2
Directed by Brett Ratner

Chris Tucker in Rush Hour 2 does the most trifling thing yet seen in a major motion picture. During the bloopers, customarily run over the end credits, a take is ruined when Tucker’s personal cellphone rings and he answers it! If we’re meant to believe that, it just confirms the film’s slack, low-grade professionalism. Once again Tucker and Jackie Chan reteam–not to improve Anglo-Sino relations or for a hiphop/Hong Kong frisson but just for more of your money. The jokes are the same ("I’ll slap you back to the Ming dynasty. I’ll slap you back to Bangkok!"); the stunts are familiar; the stars seem tired. It’s a brand-name product, like toilet paper. A casino owner tells Chan, "Imagine a business where people hand you money and you hand them back absolutely nothing. Now that’s the real American dream." It’s also Hollywood–Brett Ratner style.

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