Mark Wahlberg stars in the reimagined 'Planet of the Apes' |


Mark Wahlberg stars in the reimagined 'Planet of the Apes'

You say you want an evolution? With his revisiting of the Charlton Heston classic, Tim Burton hopes to mine sci-fi gold

One gorilla is reading Variety and sipping a Frappuccino. Another is sharing a chef’s salad with a chimpanzee. A third is gabbing into a cell phone.

An upside-down planet where apes evolve from men? Actually, it looks more like brunch at the Ivy — only with less fake fur and better table manners.

About 100 of these pseudo-simians — each the result of up to six hours in a makeup chair — are on a break before filming a battle scene for Twentieth Century Fox’s long-awaited $100 million update of Planet of the Apes. The location is at the northern tip of the Mojave Desert, the Trona Pinnacles, an otherwise barren, prehistoric-seeming landscape spiked with the same weirdly jutting rock formations that Charlton Heston traversed during his sojourn in the Forbidden Zone more than 30 years ago.

This Planet, though, turns out to be worlds apart from the original. For starters, the remake — or ”revisiting,” as the producers insist on calling it — is directed by Tim Burton, the Goth cinema god behind such cheery horrors as Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and Mars Attacks! In this version, Mark Wahlberg is the astronaut who takes a wrong turn (although Heston does cameo — as a chimpanzee). Tim Roth plays the ambitious ape general who loathes him. Helena Bonham Carter is the sympathetic chimp who loves him (perhaps really loves him, but more on that later). And Michael Clarke Duncan (The Green Mile) is a silvery gorilla soldier.

Another difference: This time the folks in the hirsute suits actually look (and jump and growl) like real apes. ”I almost had a heart attack the first day of shooting,” Wahlberg recalls, lazily twirling the Flintstone-style club he’ll be brandishing in combat later that day. ”We were standing on a hill, and I was looking down at my feet, and next to me I saw these big furry toes hanging out of these sandals. I looked up and there was this huge gorilla smiling at me. I had to run to the monitor and sit with Tim until I calmed down.”

”It was pretty weird at first,” Burton concurs. ”But you get used to it. In fact, it got to the point when it was more disturbing to see the actors without their makeup. I kind of preferred dealing with them as apes.”

Fox had been monkeying around with the idea of an Apes remake for nearly a decade. At one point, James Cameron took meetings with the studio about the project. ”I would have gone in a very different direction” is all he’ll say today about his concept. What sorts of bottomless conspiracies Oliver Stone might have uncovered — back when he too was contemplating going Apes — will probably never be known either. Nor will the ideas of Chris Columbus, the Hughes brothers, or Arnold Schwarzenegger — all of whom talked to the studio about updating the 1968 sci-fi classic.

But it wasn’t until recently — around the time Tom Rothman took over as studio cochief last year — that Fox got down to serious monkey business. The screenplay by William Broyles Jr. (Cast Away) was polished by Lawrence Konner and Mark D. Rosenthal, who share writing credit; Richard D. Zanuck (who nursed the original Apes into theaters when he was head of Fox production in the ’60s) was tapped to produce; and Burton was approached to direct. ”Picking Tim was the easiest,” Rothman says. ”He was just what we needed to reinvent the material — an iconoclastic, auteuristic visionary.”