Reviews - Planet of the Apes

Review #1 by the Groovy Yak

For the eigth Burton/Elfman collaboration as director and composer, we find ourselves on a planet with multiple moons, a handful of humans, and a whole lot of primates. Tim Burton’s “re-imagining” of Franklin J. Schaffner’s 1968 sci-fi masterpiece, Planet of the Apes, is another crowd-pleaser like Burton’s last hit, Sleepy Hollow. But, for fans of the original film and of Tim Burton, this new film is a bit of a let-down. The film itself is a bit sloppy. First of all, some of the casting seems a bit odd. Mark Wahlberg (the lead human- Leo Davidson) is a pretty good actor*, but he seems out of his element in this film despite the fact he’s not given much to do. He’s definitely not the typical Burton protagonist. And Estella Warren might be one hot human, but whoa… she needs to invest her paycheck for this film in a new acting coach. Tim Roth, who has made his career playing incredibly evil men, is way too two-dimensional as an incredibly evil ape. (Helena Bonham Carter shines as the human-loving Ari, though. She’s truly one of the film’s saving graces.) However, it’s the shallow and unsophisticated screenplay that really derails this film - there’s some glaring plot-holes that left people scratching their heads- not to mention the tacked-on ending, which left just about everyone baffled. (I loved it, though. I don’t think it was meant to be pondered.) The original film’s screenplay reads like Shakespeare compared to this new version. The best this new one can do is twist the famous lines from the original.
Probably the most disappointing factor of this new Burton film is how little of Tim Burton’s style can be found in it. Sure, there’s a few great visual touches, and some Burtonesque jokes (once again, Burton’s woman Lisa Marie completely steals a scene), but there’s just a lot that’s lacking. In fact, if it weren’t for Danny Elfman’s score, one probably wouldn’t KNOW that they were watching a Tim Burton film.
Yes, Elfman definitely keeps up his end of the collaboration. His Planet of the Apes score is yet another wild wild ride through his always-fertile musical world. Now, to get this out of the way first, Elfman’s score bares little resemblence to Jerry Goldsmith’s original, despite the two scores being heavy with lots of unique percussion sounds. Goldsmith’s approach is largely atonal and experimental- creating a very alien and mildly perverse soundscape. Elfman’s POTA is tonally centered, and concentrates on brute musical force to underscore the proceedings.
POTA takes the award from Mission: Impossible for “most percussion found in a Danny Elfman score.” This baby is loaded to the max with about every metallic, wooden, and membrane-based percussion instrument one can think of. If you’re looking for a score with long, lyrical themes, you’re looking in the wrong place as it’s rhythm that rules this planet. Elfman got his feet wet creating interesting interlocking rhythms and polyrhythms late last year in Proof of Life. In POTA, he displays his mastery of writing for percussion. His choice of vibrant percussive colors is what makes this score yet another Elfman masterpiece. In almost every track one can find an interesting percussive sound or rhythmic gesture. He also creates a handful of rhythmic motives that pop-up constantly. The most prominent is a three note motif played on what sounds like sampled wood chimes.
To add strength and brutality to the wild tribal sounds coming from the percussion, a very healthy dose of brass can be found in POTA (in particular low brass- just like in Sleepy Hollow). I’d imagine an abnormally large amount of brass players were contracted to perform this score. Most of the melodic motives found in the score are performed by the brass.
And despite what some may tell you, there’s actually a handful of melodic motives (they are definitely motives and not themes) that function as the glue that holds the entire score together. There’s a main motive, an ape motive, a Thade motive, and a very ambiguous love “theme” (is this for the unspoken love between Leo and Ari or the contrived and obligatory attraction between Leo and Daena (Warren)?) For the most part, Elfman seems entirely uninterested in creating melodic material for this score. And although there’s some wonderfully lyrical and tonal moments in the score, it’s sheer force and walls of sound that Elfman concentrates on. The motives are merely the means to which he acheives this.
Planet of the Apes is still quite a well-rounded score in terms of its tone. There may be a ton of action and brooding brass and percussion, but there’s also plenty of softer moments. One of my very favorites is the unsettling “Old Flames” which seems to teeter between warm and sensual harp and strings with the cold, dark sounds of alto flute mixed with tam-tam. (This cue is absolutely perfect at nailing the tone of this scene, by the way.) The aforementioned love theme gets a workout in the score. Elfman has lots of fun harmonizing it- in fact the unused “Ape Suite #1” contains minutes where Elfman just reharmonizes and modulates the theme over and over again. It doesn’t get boring for a second, though. There are few composers who can get away with doing that.
There are way too many highlights to mention in this score, but I think many will find “The Hunt” to be one of the best moments on this album. Personally, I find “Preparing For Battle” to be quite the adrenaline rush. It’s pure Elfman-brand excitement where one thinks the music is going to max out and then Elfman pushes everything up to an even more intense level. Tracks like “Ape Suite #2” and “Branding the Herd” sound very much like vintage, old-school Elfman and are certain to please fans- even if they both are a little on the short side. Also, one has to listen to the wonderful “Deep Space Launch” which contains some fun bombast and dissonance and some cool electronic choir effects- something new to Elfman’s canon.
Perhaps the best cue in the entire score is the “Main Titles.” While I found Sleepy Hollow to be one of Elfman’s weakest Burton main titles, I find Planet of the Apes to be one of Elfman’s strongest- next to Mars Attacks! and Edward Scissorhands that is. The melodic material may be sparse, but Elfman completely nails the mood and tone of the film. The “Main Title Deconstruction” is just as great too- it’s basically a remix of the main titles music.
Speaking of remixes, praise also must be directed to Paul Oakenfold for his “Rule the Planet Remix” that closes the album. It’s a pretty cool techno reworking of some of Elfman’s material. If you listen closely you can catch some of the interesting things Oakenfold does with Elfman’s score. It’s a very nice way to close off the album.
Finally, there’s Sony Classical. This is the first Elfman score they’ve released and hopefully it’s the beginning of a great relationship as they did an excellent job with this album. The packaging is absolutely terrific- wonderful cover art, and I challenge you to find a CD that looks cooler than the hostile monkeys found on the CD itself. The amount of score is perfect as well. (Even if there are a few really great unreleased gems found in the film.)
It took me a few weeks to really accept Elfman’s Planet of the Apes as yet another masterpiece from the composer, but now I’m certain. It’s a challenging score to be sure- especially since many people are accustomed to thematicism. Of course, if you’ve been following Elfman’s career as of late, you probably know that he’s been shying away from that type of score... And in terms of enjoyment value, I’m finding POTA to be one of the most enjoyable Elfman scores I’ve heard since Mars Attacks!(!), and I’m definitely not monkeying around when I say that. (Sigh…)
Rating: * * * *
* - Yes, I said he’s a good actor. Go rent Boogie Nights again. Or Three Kings… Or even The Perfect Storm…err, on second though, don’t rent The Perfect Storm.

Review #2 by Ian Davis

A short review for a score short on specifics. Mr Elfman produces a technically accomplished, texturally unique, thunderingly BLAND score for Burton's Twilight Zone pastiche sci-fi-fantasy-epic. Thematically the composer gently lifts from Sleepy Hollow and Mission Impossible, although his choices are deliberately non-threatening, since these are both themes which serve secondary purposes, subservient to his chief aim: to produce a score which matches both the tone of the movie [Burton's gift is colour and texture - in terms of design, plotting and emotion. It's a fundamentally flawed concept because it lacks temporal momentum, but it still makes for a fascinating, sometimes riveting experience which is never less than memorable] and its volume. All other themes used are either of the same stock or merely in-jokes, and not part of the structure of the score - of which there is practically none.
Where Elfman and Burton diverge is oddly enough in humour - Burton is customarily liberal with it in places (some of the ape characters are a scream, literally, and there are a few groaning-inducing one-liners) whereas Elfman keeps this in check with a padding of grumbling underscore. This might sound like a power struggle when score and film elements are separated, but in combination Elfman is merely continuing what he started in Sleepy Hollow, and that is anchoring Burton's more wayward (and sometimes less audience-friendly) tendencies to a more focussed holistic view of the film.
Much of his success here is in this concentration on timbre and texture over thematicism, proving that his dissatisfaction over the presentation of his score to Batman Returns has indeed paid dividends. BR was his most involvingly thematic score, a glory in leit motivic drama, but ultimately a dead end in the composer's stylistic progress. Since then he has experimented in battening down thematicism beneath experimental soundscapes and adventurous dissonance, and for the most part this has proved a successful development - particularly as he has never allowed previous experience to let his style flounder in repetiveness. Elfman has never feared returning to styles of writing long thought past, and the old goofy sounds recur in his output enough to keep both his fans and critics guessing.
That said, Planet of the Apes may sound comfortable in the composer's current artistic progress, but this reviewer can't help feeling that this score doesn't quite stand up to close scrutiny and isn't focussed enough on the drama to lift Burton's swift but messy film beyond its two dimensions.
I stand by my previous premonition that the "Buddy pack escape" cue from Spy Kids stands as a teasing hint of the composer's true big score that never was of 2001. I'm just disappointed I wasn't proved wrong.
Score in film: * * *
Score on CD: * *

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