The ending to Tim Burton’s take on Planet Of The Apes was a contentious one – but there were other alternatives that were no improvement.
Big spoilers for the original Planet Of The Apes and the 2001 remake lie ahead.
Granted, the mere mention of Tim Burton’s Planet Of The Apes usually has film fans preparing to fling their faeces. But in a bid to be a bit more half-full than half-empty (and to mark 20 years since its release), allow me to sing a few praises of the picture, and talk about how the much-maligned ‘President Thade’ ending had its plus points. Inevitably, this is a very spoiler-y article.
After 20th Century Fox announced the new film – that it’d been trying to get off the ground for some time – director Tim Burton famously began referring to his upcoming Planet Of The Apes movie not as a remake, but as a ‘reimagining’ of the beloved 1968 sci-fi classic, which gave fans of the film the faintest glimmer of hope. Much like today, a spate of remakes and reboots (the Gus Van Sant shot-for-shot remake of Psycho in particular) left a sour taste in the mouth for many in the late 1990s and early 2000s, so the idea of a rethought version of …Apes from the director of Beetlejuice and Batman sounded somewhat intriguing. After all, ‘from the imagination of Tim Burton’ was once enough to make a film must-see.
Having said that, in 2001’s Planet Of The Apes featured plenty of moments for audiences to invest in. Many fans of the original also got a kick out of Charlton Heston’s return to the ape series and the resurrecting of his iconic “damn them all to hell” utterance, but this time flipped as the simian father of the villainous General Thade. There’s also a blink-and-miss-it appearance from the original Nova when Linda Harrison appears, somewhat poignantly, as a human slave known simply as ‘Woman in Cart’.
Rick Baker’s make-up is nothing short of amazing in the film, as is the physicality of the ape actors, and there are plenty of memorable primate performances to be found: Tim Roth’s Thade (salivating-ly vicious), Paul Giamatti’s Limbo (humanely greedy and snivelly) and Helena Bonham-Carter’s Ari to name just three. But it’s the comparisons to the original that weigh the 2001 film down. Especially when it comes to the ending.
The denouement of Franklin J Schaffner’s Planet Of The Apes from 1968 famously sees Heston’s Taylor in something of a Pyrrhic victory where he has defeated the apes on one hand, but then discovers the sunken Statue of Liberty, signalling that this planet of the apes was once the planet of the humans.
Although this ending differed from that of the novel by Pierre Boulle (reportedly at Heston’s behest), it became one of the most iconic scenes in sci-fi cinema and also one of the greatest cinema twists, being widely referenced in everything from The Simpsons to DC’s Kamandi: The Last Boy On Earth comic books to Spaceballs. Even the downed Oberon space-ship in Burton’s film is pointedly reminiscent of Lady Liberty’s crown.
Of course, the Lady Liberty scene signalled that the ape-infested planet was not an alien world as presumed, but was actually Earth all along. But for the purist amongst the audience Pierre Boulle’s 1963 La Planète Des Singes instead sees the protagonist fleeing the alien planet and arriving back on Earth, only to be apprehended by civilised apes who don’t believe that human beings could ever actually evolve. Burton resurrects this idea, flipping the ’68 ending and also the audience’s assumed familiarity with his film. The biggest problem was the ‘President Thade’ statue that Mark Wahlberg’s Leo Davidson finds instead of good old Abe at the Lincoln memorial.
Burton’s film suggests that Thade somehow escaped the Oberon where he was imprisoned and went through the same black hole as Marky Mark, most likely in the pod that crashed in the swamp. Much like Pericles, the monkey that Davidson pursued into the black hole, but instead came to the planet later, the idea is that Thade went in but came out and arrived on Earth earlier than Davidson. So early in fact, that he had time to lead an ape revolution and overthrow the humans.
Another possibility is that the apes had actually evolved on Earth whilst Davidson was away and that President Thade is a different version of the villainous general. A variant, if you want to get all “mulitversal” about it. Whichever way you look at it, audiences were left wondering if what they just watched that actually worth it, if it actually made sense and if it was all for nothing.
As well as confusion, the President Thade aspect of the ending also came with controversy upon release amongst claims that Burton had been up to monkey business by allegedly stealing the ending from a Jay And Silent Bob comic by Kevin Smith. Still, another idea to reveal that Davidson’s adventures had all been in vain was that our hero would crash land in the Yankees stadium, only to find the chimps trying their best to hit a home run. The irony.
In reality, the headscratcher of an ending was originally intended to be a cliffhanger, with the majority of the cast due to come back for a sequel or set of sequels which would explain POTUS Thade and presumably set the story straight and leave audiences satisfied. This, of course, never happened.
Burton’s film was technically a box office success for 20th Century Fox, making $362 million from an estimated budget of $100 million and had a near-record breaking opening weekend at the time. And for good reason. The promotional drive was impressive (and downright weird, in the case of this WWF/E crossover), Burton was a draw of a name and …Apes was well and truly carved into our culture. But upon seeing the film, fan’s fangs came out and within weeks, it was clear that this would not the be franchise founder that Fox was hoping for.
10 years afterwards, Wahlberg told MTV: “They didn’t have the script right. Fox Studios had a release date before Tim Burton had shot a foot of film. They were pushing him and pushing him in the wrong direction. You have to let Tim do his thing.” It’s little secret that Burton did not enjoy the studio interference on the movie.
Whereas the original Planet Of The Apes spawned a further four sequels as well as a live-action and an animated TV series, Burton’s sadly stands alone. Fox wisely decided to sit back and rethink the franchise, this time with a little less haste. And the result, arriving some ten years later, kicked off the Rise/Dawn/War Of The Planet Of The Apes series, which is arguably one of the finest modern trilogies. And the series is still evolving.
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