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‘Planet of the Apes’ is a mixed bag

Summer flick is filled with satire, humor, action

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PLANET OF THE APES —*** — Mark Wahlberg, Tim Roth, Helena Bonham Carter, Michael Clarke Duncan, Estella Warren, Paul Giamatti, Cary Hiroyuki-Tagawa, David Warner, Kris Kristofferson; rated PG-13 (violence, brief vulgarity, mild profanity, brief drug use); see the "On the Screen" column for full listing of local theaters.

Well, here's something of a pleasant surprise — namely, a summer film that actually delivers on some of its promise.

Of course, that doesn't mean director Tim Burton's big-budgeted "re-imagining" of the 1968 classic "Planet of the Apes" is a great movie. In fact, calling it a mixed bag would be something of an understatement.

The story is all over the map, and the tone is wildly uneven (at times the film appears to be a social satire, at times it's straight-up science-fiction, and sometimes, it's an action-adventure piece). And let's not even get into the all-too-convenient conclusion and the all-too-inevitable twist ending.

Still, it's not an easy film to dismiss. Unlike the vast majority of its competition this year, it's actually interesting, exciting and even a little thought-provoking. And when it's good, it comes close to being great.

Longtime "Apes" fan should probably be warned that this is not your father's "Planet of the Apes" — though that really won't surprise anyone familiar with the work of oddball filmmaker Burton. Instead, this version of the tale takes bits from all five "Apes" movies, and even throws in some elements of the original source material, Pierre Boulle's satirical science-fiction novel "Monkey Planet."

The heroic human this time is Mark Wahlberg, who stars as Leo Davidson, part of the crew aboard the space station Oberon. When an odd electromagnetic storm crops up, the scientists send an ape astronaut named Pericles to investigate.

However, when the chimp quickly disappears, Leo attempts to rescue his animal crewmate. But his pod-ship is hit by some sort of pulse that propels him hundreds of years into the future.

Worse, he crash lands on a planet ruled by talking apes — one in which the mostly mute human beings are enslaved or kept as pets. Fortunately, he is "purchased" by Ari (Helena Bonham Carter), a human-rights activist who realizes this new arrival may be something special.

Meanwhile, evil chimpanzee General Thade (character actor Tim Roth) has begun a campaign to exterminate what he see as the inferior human species. And even though Leo intends to find some way — any way, really — to get home, he winds up becoming the leader of a human revolt against Thade's forces.

Visually, this is another stunner, thanks to the impressive designs for the makeup (yet another creation of multiple Oscar-winner Rick Baker), set design (frequent Burton collaborator Rick Heinrichs) and costumes (Colleen Atwood, another Academy Award honoree).

But perhaps the film's biggest surprise is how well Burton, better known for his ability to create atmosphere, handles the action sequences. Add to that some smart humor, some of it pretty inside (perhaps the most amusing bit is watching NRA spokesman Charlton Heston, unbilled in full ape makeup, delivering a monologue about the dangers of technology and weapons).

Performance-wise, Wahlberg does a decent job, though his character, surprisingly, is the most underwritten of the bunch. However, that might not be such a bad thing, considering how showy the turns by both Roth and Carter are, with the latter clearly aping (sorry, bad pun) some of Kim Hunter's affectations from the original films.

"Planet of the Apes" is rated PG-13 for violence (ape attacks and weapons fire), brief vulgarity (some off-color humor and a lewd dance), use of a handful of profanities (religiously based) and brief drug use (opium, seen in the background). Running time: 119 minutes.

E-mail: jeff@desnews.com