Heston Is the Highpoint in Planet of the Apes

Written by Armond White on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.


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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