Hey! Where am I? What is this place?"
That's what Mark Wahlberg says when he crash-lands his spaceship on "Planet of the Apes," the latest big-budget extravaganza to lurch into multiplexes this summer.
Moviegoers might say something similar when they realize the alarming secret of this loudly touted fantasy - that its dialogue, action, and effects are as mired in formulas, cliches, and stereotypes as the simian world our hero finds himself imprisoned on.
It's possible that director Tim Burton was aiming at a retro atmosphere all along, of course, playing on the affectionate nostalgia for old Hollywood conventions. It's not as if the picture were some bold new project - the original "Planet" has been a popular franchise since 1968 - and it's not as if moviegoers were clamoring for fresh ideas in this summer of spinoffs, retreads, and rehashes.
Twentieth Century Fox has been promoting "Planet" as a brand-new adventure, though, promising that Burton would take it in directions we never dreamed of. The only real surprise is how utterly unoriginal it has turned out to be. Even the new ending has an air of deja vu, despite a nightmarish undertone that makes it the picture's most genuinely jolting episode.
If you've been vacationing on Planet Ape and don't know the movie's premise, it doesn't take long to sketch. An intrepid Air Force pilot lands on a world where supersmart simians have all the power, and humans are their slaves. Aghast at the injustice he finds - and eager to save his own skin - he figures out simian realpolitik and plunges into battle against the planet's oppressive forces.
The screenplay toys with political satire, peppering the dialogue with phrases like "separate but equal" and "Can't we all just get along?" The producers have even recruited Charlton Heston - star of the original "Planet" and a prominent gun-rights advocate - for a cameo appearance where he speechifies about the awesome power of pistols.
But these ironic touches are as lightweight as the rest of the movie, playing with social commentary as forgettably as the action scenes play with physical danger. The filmmakers reserve their real passion for the jungle-bound settings and ape-suit costumes, and even these have a been-there-done-that look. The cast fares poorly, too. What's the point of having gifted actors like Tim Roth and Helena Bonham Carter if it's hard to recognize them, much less savor their talents, under all that monkey makeup?
The saddest thing about "Planet" is that it comes from director Burton, whose knack for cinematic novelty has given us fresh-looking movies as different as "Pee-wee's Big Adventure" and "Batman." At first glance, "Planet" seems like a perfect project for him, given his ability to dream up alternative visual universes that reflect our everyday world in a fun-house mirror.
But when you take on a popular commodity like the "Planet" format, you have to satisfy the expectations of countless devoted fans, and Burton's creative imagination has fallen prey to this responsibility. This is one "Planet" you can skip a visit to.
Rated PG-13; contains action-movie violence.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor