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Dinosaurs, Apes, and the End of Days

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 William—and 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 spawn—in 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 actions—battleships, landing craft, choppers, Marines at battalion strength—she 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 there."

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. Kristofferson—given little to do other than to appear grizzled—is 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 Mark—they 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 apes—this 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 which—because of its incredible wonderfulness—only 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 evocative."
     —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 interested—I mean, interested to the point of contacting my agent—here'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.