Planet of the Apes: Special Edition on DVD
You know the story—or at least you think you do. The first version of Planet of the Apes, released in 1968, is one of the most widely admired science-fiction films of all time. This new version, directed by Tim Burton, is not, strictly speaking, a remake, but a drastically new film whose only real connection to the original is its general inspiration from Pierre Boulle's novel. An astronaut is thrown off course and crash-lands on an alien world on which everything is upside down: Apes—and not just apes, as suggested by the title, but simians of all sorts—are dominant. Humans, living in a primitive social structure, are under constant threat of attack and enslavement by the apes. Our astronaut-hero just wants to get home, but reluctantly, and in spite of himself, he helps the other humans.
The fact that this new version of a favorite classic takes those sketchy plot details and turns them into a very different film may explain the hostile reaction of many fans of the first movie to this "pretender." If you loved the original film, you might hate this one—the 1968 version might be projecting in your mind as you watch Burton's movie. Much like the problem many people have when watching the film adaptation of a beloved book, the disconnect can be a constant distraction.
I had no such problem when I first saw the new Planet of the Apes in the theater, though I did have three criticisms. First, the writers tried to be oh, so clever with cute lines attempting to draw humor from the human-ape reversal of positions. Second, and worse, were the frequent allusions to the first film, including many quotes reused in new contexts. Both the humor and the "homages" to the 1968 original were amusing on one level, but constantly yanked me out of the movie world Tim Burton was, I assume, trying to create. Most disappointing, however, was an ending that, in trying for a twist different from the 1968 version, left most viewers watching the end credits in complete bafflement.
Despite these reservations, I found the new Planet of the Apes immensely entertaining. It certainly helped that I was never a big fan of the original, and so wasn't bothered by the changes in the plot.
The current version is also stronger in a number of ways. In particular, the main ape characters are more complex, and the acting is generally superior, though Mark Wahlberg as the astronaut is no Charlton Heston. But neither was Heston a Tim Roth, who nearly steals the new film as the villain, General Thade.
Burton's take on the subject is a visual and aural feast, beginning with his brilliant use of the widescreen format. Director of photography Philippe Rousselot's work is stunningly rich. On the big screen at the Village theater in Westwood, California, where I first saw it, it was perhaps the single best-looking movie—and movie presentation—I'd seen all year. And the sound, despite a slight edginess that seems unavoidable in most theatrical presentations, blew me away. The DVD can't quite capture the visual impact of a great print in a first-rate theater, but it comes amazingly close. Apart from a few early night scenes in and around the ape city that have a slightly pasty, unreal appearance, the video transfer is dynamite. If your display is up to it, you'll see a 3-dimensionality that rivals the computer-generated world of Shrek. The image is crisply detailed and free of visible edge enhancement. This is the best-looking DVD I've yet seen from Fox.
The sound—whether Dolby Digital or DTS—is gorgeous as well, and in some important ways better than what I heard in the theater. It's less edgy, and while the deep bass is limited to a few explosive scenes and to Danny Elfman's percussion-heavy, Oscar-worthy score, the surrounds are highly active.
The extras on this two-disc set are extensive. I'm not sure where they came up with the "13 hours" of extras claimed on the cover, but if you take that with a grain of salt, you won't be left wanting more by the time you get through all of it. One particularly original feature on disc 1 is the Enhanced Viewing Mode, in which informative bits pop up during the film—either in the corner of the image or as short interruptions. Needless to say, you'll want to watch the movie in normal mode first. But Enhanced Viewing—much like New Line Home Video's Infinifilm feature, first used on Thirteen Days—is a welcome addition to the DVD playbook.
Disc 1 also includes two commentary tracks (see below), DVD-ROM features, NUON-enhanced features (I was unable to check either of the latter two), and, according to the studio, two hidden Easter Eggs. For the uninitiated: Inspired by the video-game mania, Easter Eggs are hidden, unpublicized features that require strange combinations of mouse-clicking to find. I guess I'm too hard-boiled for the endless searching they usually require, but if you're game, click away to your heart's content.
Disc 2 includes a very clever "3-dimensional" menu, five extended scenes in very rough form (they look terrible compared to the pristine photography in the film itself), a "Rule the Planet Remix" music video, a multi-angle feature gallery, concept art, the usual theatrical trailers and teasers, an HBO special on the film, and several documentaries shot during the making of the movie. Some of the latter run too long, their subjects better covered in the HBO piece, but I particularly enjoyed the Danny Elfman–hosted documentary on scoring the film. Even better is Elfman's commentary track on disc 1 (there's also one by Tim Burton). A commentary track by the composer is a rare treat. Elfman makes his points during lulls in the music, then lets important cues play uninterrupted. Thus this is virtually an isolated music track (the dialogue is muted) with fascinating and non-intrusive comments from the composer. And his score is outstanding—one of the best of the year.
All in all, there's plenty here for everyone. The movie may not exactly be a candidate for Best Picture—though if it isn't nominated for Oscars for Music, Photography, Makeup, Sound, and Best Supporting Actor (Tim Roth), there's no justice. But the DVD is so good that it might well have vied for one of our DVD of the Year Editors' Choice awards (SGHT, January 2002), had Fox been able to provide us with an advance pressing. No matter. If you have any interest at all in Planet of the Apes, you'll want to add this Special Edition to your collection.