The Trouble With Hairy

The apes in Tim Burton's "Planet of the Apes" look tremendously regal, but the heavy makeup makes the actors sound thick-tongued and muffled: it's like they're all wearing retainers. Fortunately, you can follow the plot without subtitles. An Air Force pilot named Leo Davidson (Mark Wahlberg) gets knocked into the future by an electromagnetic storm, and crashes onto a planet where humans are caged and apes give boring dinner parties. Even if you've never seen the 1968 Charlton Heston flick--which Burton updates with broad and playful strokes--you'll have no trouble understanding what a screenwriter might call Leo's "motivation." He wants to get the hell off the planet.

Thanks to Burton, you will want to stay awhile. "Planet of the Apes" has its flaws, but at its best it's a fleet, fun action movie--and certainly one of the cooler blockbusters that Hollywood will cough up this godforsaken summer. Shortly after being captured, Leo stages a jailbreak, and leads a small band through the jungle and across the desert toward his mother ship. The maniacal, fascist ape General Thade (Tim Roth) is hard on his heels, but Leo finds time to exchange meaningful glances with both a comely captive named Daena (model Estella Warren, wearing the jungle-slave equivalent of a minidress) and an ape named Ari (Helena Bonham Carter), who's a human-rights activist, as well as a hottie with relatively little facial hair. The interspecies love triangle generates a lot of laughs, most of which appear to be intentional. At one point, however, Leo draws close to Ari and tells her heatedly, "Show us the way out of here, and I'll show you something that will change your world forever." That line brought down the house at an early screening, but Leo was apparently talking about his spaceship.

"Planet of the Apes" has tonal problems at times, its desire for campy laughs warring with its lust for action. And there are further nits to pick. The movie is murky and sunless even for the director of "Batman" and "Sleepy Hollow"--just watching it gives you seasonal affective disorder--and Wahlberg's performance is passable, rather than rousing. That said, "Apes" still whisks the audience along. The movie's full of creepily gorgeous images: the ape army's red tents glowing in the dark, or their distant torches making a kind of river as they march through the desert at night. What's more, the movie has some sly supporting turns (Paul Giamatti is hilarious as a whiny slave trader) and some terrific, special-effects-driven fight sequences (think "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," but with primates). A perfect movie? By no means. But until Hollywood rises, the apes deserve to rule.