by Lucius Shepard
August 12th, 2001
These are the end times. The days when humanity will be visited by the
stupefactions of the Beast, when the dregs of wisdom will be drained, when
fools will deliver sermons to the masses, and yea verily, man and animal will
feed from the same trough.
Proof of this is playing at your local multiplex.
This proof is best exemplified by the fact that two of the most inane, ineptly
crafted, and relentlessly imbecilic movies of all time are currently playing to
packed houses. I'm speaking of Jurassic Park III and Planet of the Apes.
To call a work of the imagination "an entertainment" once implied a work of
light content, designed to please rather than to challenge the mind and eye.
Nowadays it is necessary to redefine the term to mean an appeasement, something
on the order of a handful of dried corn tossed into a sty filled with hungry
swine. By this construction alone, it is conceivable to consider the two films
I have mentioned as entertainments, for while they do not fill or sustain, they
seem to promise that real sustenance is or may once have been possible. But
they do not, in any marked way, entertain.
Briefly described, Jurassic Park III is a broken promise. The first two
films in the franchise were machines that generated scene after scene of
dinosaurs menacing and/or eating people, and so it was with this expectation
that three friends and I attended a matinee, being in a mood to see our fellow
man rendered into T-Rex Chow. Much to our dismay, there was very little
people-eating in evidence and even less menace. What Park offers is a
warm-and-fuzzy, family-values dinosaur movie in which everyone of any import
survives, its focus being the reuniting of a divorced husband and wife come to
the island to search for their son who disappeared while hang-gliding along its
shore. This central promise is not the only one the movie breaks. Along the way
director Joe Johnston (Honey, I Shrunk the Kids) violates most of the
important rules of screen narrative. For instance, at the outset of the film,
the mercenaries who accompany husband and wife (William Macy and Tea Leoni) to
the island are shown disintegrating a medium-sized plane with a massive gun.
The camera lingers loving over gun and explosion, and this leads us to suspect
that we will later see said gun used on a dinosaur or fifty. But no. The gun
just kind of goes away. We are, I believe, supposed to identify with Macy and
Leoni in their search for functionality and wedded bliss, and to help us in
this, Macy delivers the following lines: "Do you remember that time when we
went fishing? I miss that!" Wow. That's certainly more than enough information
from which to extrapolate an entire rich history of loving interactions twixt
Tea and Williamand it has to be enough, because that's virtually all the
information we get on the subject. This makes it rather difficult to care what
happens to Macy, Leoni, and their spawnin fact, their survival, although
a foregone conclusion, comes as a disappointment.
The key to the salvation of those on the island proves to be a satellite phone,
which was in the possession a mercenary who early on became a human Happy Meal,
victim of a "superpredator," a dinosaur even bigger and badder than T-Rex
(though if we are to accept the film's depiction of this creature, it was also
something of a world-class bungler, and not all that fast for a superpredator).
Improbably, the survivors hear the phone ringing inside the dinosaur at great
distances and eventually find it in a steaming pile of superpredator feces.
Though the feces contains human bones that have been scoured and abraded by the
dinosaur's digestive acids, the cell phone is still shiny, bright, and
functional, with just enough juice left for one call. Sam Neill, who wanders
through the film like a man in search of a retirement bonus, calls Laura Dern,
his girlfriend from the first movie of the franchise. We are not shown how Ms.
Dern responds to the call, but judging by the result of her
actionsbattleships, landing craft, choppers, Marines at battalion
strengthshe must have gone straight to the top and uttered those magic
words, "George! A paleontologist is in trouble." But before this happens, in a
moment that illuminates the movie's cretinous G-rated heart, humans and
velociraptors come damn close to sharing a group hug. The only things worth
watching in this almost substanceless ninety minutes are the pteranodons. They
are penned up in an enormous birdcage that encloses a valley. Who are the
villains who built the cage? Who grew the pteranodons? Who evolved the
superpredator? Though the characters speculate upon this and other related
subjects, Joe Johnston will never tell. To fill us in on what is going on would
have ruined his streak of amateurish screw-ups. The pteranodons are nice eye
candy, but are they a real menace? When one rips up Sam Neill's assistant,
jumping all over him with sufficient apparent force to flatten a HumVee, the
assistant survives. Either pteranodons are wimps, or else those paleontologists
are seriously tough little mothers.
Following this experience, my friends and I decided we needed to see something
to wash out the bad taste, and so we went to see Jet Li's new feature, Kiss of
the Dragon, which by contrast had the depth and craft of Citizen Kane.
I assumed that I had seen the worst movie of the summer in Park. But I
had not reckoned on Planet of the Apes.
I don't know for certain, but I assume if you're reading this that you have the
mental capacity sufficient to perform simple tasks such as closing a door,
making change for a dollar, opening an umbrella. Should this be the case, then
you are way too smart for this movie. It's not necessary when reviewing Apes
to consider matters like technique or craft or thematic scope. To utilize those
critical lenses one would be as immaterial as an oenophile judging the body and
nose of a glass of grape KoolAid. It is informed by a brand of humor so stale
and unengaging as to make you wonder whether it might have been an ape who
wrote the screenplay ("Can't we all just get along?" whines a slaver
orangutan), and Tim Burton's direction is so desultory, you have the idea that
every once in a while somebody knocked on his trailer to wake him and said,
"Hey, man. Better tell 'em to do something. They're just standing around out
To comprehend the stupidity of the film, you only need consider the plot, which
begins thusly: Markie Mark, aka Mark Wahlberg, works on a deep-space station
dedicated to scientific research. For some unstated and patently absurd reason,
the personnel of the station are engaged in a research that demands they send
monkeys out in little spaceships. When Markie Mark's favorite chimp, Pericles,
is lost in an electromagnetic storm, he steals a spaceship and follows him,
only to become lost in the same storm. Markie Mark's ship goes through some
sort of wormhole or time warp, and he winds up crashing on the Planet of the
Apes. There, along with a group of fur-clad humans (Fur clothes? It must be
cold in that there rain forest!) that includes Kris Kristofferson and babe du
planet Estella Warren, he immediately is captured by ape slavers. They
are taken to an ape city, a ludicrous piece of set design that looks like a
hippie dream of the Middle Ages, and there Markie, Kris, and Estella are sold
to Helena Bonham Chimp. She is a highly moral chimp, into human rights, and is
mightily desired by General Thade (Tim Roth), an evil chimp who wants to sniff
her all over. Markie Mark leads an escape, aided by Helena Bonham Chimp.
Kristoffersongiven little to do other than to appear grizzledis
killed in the escape, and if you ask me, he looks rather grateful to Michael
Clarke Duncan Gorilla for providing him with a way out of this mess. The rest
go searching for a rescue party that Markie Mark's handy-dandy pocket locater
has detected as being situated in a desert area sacred to all apes, where long
ago the God Ape Simos appeared and to which one day, according to prophecy, He
will return. Along the way, no characters are developed, and Markie Mark,
sullen and reasonably apelike himself, proves immune to the charms of Estella,
who appears to be the beneficiary of an ancient cache of Maybelline products
that she has refused to share with others of her almost uniformly drab and
haggard sisterhood. When they reach the location from which the signal received
by Markie Mark's locater has been sent, they discover that the people aboard
the research station were every bit as dumb as Markie Markthey have
followed him into the electromagnetic storm, went through the time warp, and
crashed countless centuries ago, and were killed by their own mutated monkeys.
They are met at the wreckage by a force of raggedy humans who, though Markie
Mark has only been on the planet a couple or three days, have heard that he is
challenging the rule of the apesthis knowledge, one assumes, having been
transmitted by some form of primitive Internet, because there is certainly no
other way they might have learned it. There then ensues a battle between humans
and a pursuing force led by Tim Roth Chimp and Michael Clarke Duncan Gorilla.
Throughout the movie, it has been demonstrated that apes are far stronger than
humans, but when it comes to the final battle, the humans stand right in with
them and pretty much give tit for tat. As for Markie Mark, he may possess all
the acting ability of a day-old loogey, but the boy can take a punch. Knock him
fifteen, twenty feet in the air, he doesn't even bruise. And the apes, well,
they're pretty tough themselves. When the rockets of the wrecked station
ignite, blowing the bulk of the monkey army hundreds of feet high, they get the
wind knocked out of them and seem a little woozy, but they hop right up and go
to kicking human butt. Then comes the Deus Ex Machina denouement, which
stops the battle and causes the apes to understand that everything they have
been taught is a lie foisted upon them by General Thade and his dad (Charleton
Heston in the role he was born to play, that of a dying monkey) and, in a
matter of a minute or two, persuades them to give up their religion and their
traditions and crave only peace with the lovable humans whom moments before
they had been trying to scrag.
But that's not all, folks.
We still have that superduper surprise ending to look forward to, a secret to
whichbecause of its incredible wonderfulnessonly a few people were
privy prior to the film's release. It is, in fact, the ending of Boull�'s
novel, which was more-or-less used in one of the original's sequels (Escape from
The Planet of the Apes). And it is, of course, utterly telegraphed. In
the theater where I watched the movie, when Markie Mark crashlands near the
Lincoln Memorial and stares up in shock at the statue inside (before we get to
see it), even tiny dog-faced children with their mouths full of Milk Duds and
Nut Buddies were going, "I bet it's an ape! I bet it's an ape!" Still and all,
it very well may have zapped those individuals in the audience who were
operating without the benefit of pre-frontal lobes.
After viewing this excrescence, a few questions occurred to me. Was that hushed
stillness following the ending a silent memorial tribute to the artistic demise
of Tim Burton? Can Markie Mark be persuaded to reform New Kids on the Block? Is
there anyone left in Hollywood who can score in double figures on the
Stanford-Binet test? This picture is the sort of disquieting, talentless blare
of incompetence that makes one yearn for the dominion of apes, at least in
Hollywood. It would be a distinct upgrade. And if there are any
super-intelligent apes out there ambitious to climb higher on the food chain,
they must be greatly heartened by this latest sign of human devolution.
It's difficult to understand what the makers of Apes had in mind. Most
of the allegorical content of the Pierre Boull� novel that provided a flimsy
but necessary skeleton for the first movie has been excised, and what remains
is a loosely connected sequence of ineptly achieved action scenes larded with
the aforementioned stale humor and some inane philosophizing by Helena Bonham
Chimp. What was the movie about? Markie Mark's ridiculous journey? Perhaps the
orangutan slaver's bleated quote stated the theme. But Planet of the Apes
is mostly about the prevailing notion among players in Hollywood that they
don't have to work anymore to squeeze nickels out of our butts. We can put out
any goddamn thing we want, they tell themselves. Any shabbily constructed,
horribly acted, shamelessly unoriginal piece of crap with a screenplay written
by a borderline illiterate with a substance abuse problem. And if we hype it
with a trailer full of MTV quick cuts, heavy metal gibberish, and Dolby Digital
emotions, the dweebs out there in Putzburgh will be hopping up and down with
glee. The two films reviewed herein perfectly embody the contempt for audience
that informs this notion.
I assumed that most critics would detest this film, and indeed, most have. But
the big guns appear to have fallen into line with the Hollywood machine. Let us
examine the reactions of some of these worthies.
"A surprise ending that I loved."
Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times
Obviously there's some sort of problem with Roger. He probably did love the
ending . . . but then he seems to love everything. He loved Sara
Michelle Gellar's magic crab movie. It would not surprise me in the least if he
considers American Pie 2 a work of towering genius.
"A crackling good movie. A wild ride, ravishing and
Jane Horowitz, Washington Post
Crackling? Okay, that could be explained by heavy popcorn consumption in the
region of Ms. Horowitz' theater seat. Wild ride? That's a bit tougher to
explain. Perhaps she used the word in the sense of "undisciplined." But
"ravishing and evocative"? I suppose I did feel ravished, though I might have
said "assaulted" or "raped." But the only thing Apes evoked for me was
the feeling of having been struck in the face by a fresh cowpie.
"A fleet, fun action movie."
Jeff Giles, Newsweek
No, Jeff. Sorry. By comparison to Apes, How to Make an American Quilt
was "a fleet, fun action movie." The audience with whom I watched the film
seemed to be having about the same amount of fun as that they would have
derived from a lecture on drunk driving.
"It shows a sparkling guile."
Elvis Mitchell, The New York Times
My God! Elvis! Say it ain't so! You used to be one of us, man!
" '. . . an amazing display of imagination with a
surprise-punch ending that outdoes the original."
Bob Graham, San Francisco Chronicle
I think Bob may have been sharing Roger's popcorn.
What's going on here? Could there be a plague of some sort that affects only
the reviewers of the largest major metropolitan newspapers, causing them to
suffer pre-Alzheimer's symptoms? Seriously . . . think about it.
I repeat: What's going on here? There must be an answer.
I suppose if I were sufficiently motivated, if I were speaking to a large
enough audience to warrant such motivation, I might come up with an equally
positive review funded by my honest reactions. During the showing of Apes,
there were a number of times I slid forward in my seat, preparing to walk out
of the theater. But I sank back, benumbed by the idiot splendor of an eight- or
nine-figure budget being flushed down the toidy, and eventually, being moved by
the film to contemplate the decay of civilization, the end of life as we know
it, I fell into a state of despair. So, in case anyone out there is
interestedI mean, interested to the point of contacting my
agenthere's my pull-quote for Planet of the Apes:
"An edge-of-your-seat thrill ride. Mind-numbing
splendor. I wept."
Trust me on this.