Tim Burton seems to have been at least third choice to supervise a remake of “Planet of the Apes” for 20th Century Fox and the director has made a fitfully whimsical, frequently incoherent botch of the privilege.The studio released the original “Planet of the Apes” in 1968. The costly new “Planet” owes its best interlude to the original. Charlton Heston — cast in 1968 as the marooned astronaut Taylor, who eludes subjugation to a frontier ape civilization — returns for a death scene in ape disguise. Mr. Heston makes wonderful use of his unmistakable voice while pronouncing terminal curses on the human race.
In the new “Planet,” a stranded young astronaut played by Mark Wahlberg pilots a pod from a space station nicknamed Oberon to a swamp kingdom on an unknown planet. He passes through a cosmic disturbance that seems to advance the time frame 500 years or so.
Mr. Wahlberg’s boyish upstart, named Leo Davidson, seems more of an animal handler than an explorer. He impulsively leaves the Oberon in order to rescue a chimp called Pericles, lost while piloting his own pod. When Leo and Pericles are together, it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that Mr. Burton has his influences scrambled and actually wanted to trifle with a vintage Disney farce, perhaps titled “The Chimp From Outer Space” or “The Astronaut Wore Tennis Shoes.”
Unlike Mr. Heston’s grown-up and resourceful astronaut in the original, Leo doesn’t have to spend much time in captivity or demonstrate the power of speech to amaze and frighten his captors. The suspicious authoritarians of the original, whose prejudices obviously were contrived to mirror human shortcomings, have given way to spoiled, hedonistic aristocrats and last-ditch, suicidal military tyrants.
Mr. Heston’s protector was Kim Hunter as a gentle zoologist, Dr. Zira, who had a consort of her own species, the late Roddy McDowall as Cornelius. Zira’s highly unsatisfactory replacement is Helena Bonham Carter as a rebellious society girl named Ari.
Ari seems to be nursing a crush on Leo, to the understandable perplexity of the nature girl who goes on the lam with him, Estella Warren as Daena.
Anyway, Ari has nothing in the way of professional credentials or resources with which to assist Leo. She’s more of a “human rights” hobbyist. Most of Miss Bonham Carter’s dialogue is garbled. Some of the apes are encouraged to speak very distinctly, especially Tim Roth as the runty and bloodthirsty chimpanzee warlord Gen. Thade and Michael Clarke Duncan as his towering adjutant, Attar. For some reason, it’s OK for Ari to be unintelligible. Is this a ruse to camouflage her weaknesses as a character?
All the sore-thumb oddities in the presentation might be a private system of joking that makes sense to Mr. Burton. Some facetious bits are easier to brush off than others. For example, as an ape slave trader called Limbo, Paul Giamatti is permitted to crib the Rodney King lament, “Can’t we all learn to get along?” Attar recalls action movies at their dopiest when sending off minions with the following command: “You go this way, you go that way, and you two come with me.”
The reappearance of Oberon as a wreck in perfect working condition also might qualify, although it recalls Woody Allen’s comically unimpaired Volkswagen in “Sleeper.”
Another problem with “Planet” is that it’s an eyesore, either wedded to cramped and dreary settings or sabotaged by inept, incomprehensible spectacle. Every chase sequence or confrontation, from Leo’s initial capture to a vicious but pointless clash between an ape army and human irregulars, is shot in that new total-blur fashion that has become the curse of summer spectacles. The Burton “Planet” has more in common with last summer’s grandiose fiasco, “Battlefield Earth,” in visceral and scenic breakdown than any other science-fiction forerunner.
The new fade-out kicker may prove especially trifling to people in Washington because a local landmark gets stuck with the dishonor of underlining a stale thematic point.