Grade: C

Whether they were good (“Ed Wood”), bad (“Mars Attacks”) or indifferent (“Sleepy Hollow”), Tim Burton’s films have always been distinctive–peculiarly wry, cheeky and opulent. So what’s most surprising about his new take on the “Planet of the Apes” franchise is how terribly ordinary and anonymous it is. This revision of the 1968 Franklin Shaffner picture, which itself was a pretty thorough rewriting of the Pierre Boulle novel on which it was based, is a competent, middle-of-the road adventure picture, impressively mounted and tidily directed, and it has a few–though, given its maker, remarkably few–witty moments. But despite its efficiency it never exhibits the whimsical quality that until now has been Burton’s stock-in-trade; it doesn’t carry his characteristic stamp–unlike, say, David Lynch’s “Dune,” which was terrible but still quintessentially Lynchian in its perversity and emphasis on the bizarre. Maybe what the director wanted to prove (as Orson Welles did in 1946 with “The Stranger”) is that he could make a simple genre picture as well as anyone; but while respectable enough on its own fairly low terms, the picture is disappointingly conventional and unimaginative. It also has far less subtext about prejudice and racism than the first film did.

One doesn’t want to give away too much about the plot, since the writers have tried to alter things sufficiently to make the result less a remake than a rethinking. Suffice it to say that the narrative has been updated to the year 2029, when Leo Davidson (Mark Wahlberg), an astronaut-researcher on a space station, goes off on an unauthorized trip into some sort of electrical storm in an attempt to retrieve the chimp he’s been training, which has been sent into the disturbance to secure readings on the phenomenon but has disappeared. Our hero soon finds himself on the titular planet, where simians rule and humans are a brutalized sub-species. Before long he finds himself the leader of a small rebellion involving a human family, including patriarch Karubi (Kris Kristofferson) and his Ursula Andress-like daughter Daena (Estella Warren); also joining the ragtag group from the opposite side are “human rights” chimp activist Ari (Helena Bonham Carter) and, reluctantly, sneakily entrepreneurial slave-trader Limbo (Paul Giamatti). Their relentless pursuer is the extra-hawkish simian general and, apparently, defense secretary Thade (Tim Roth). Everything winds up at a locale where the past history of the planet is revealed, a hand-to-hand (paw-to-hand?) battle ensues, and a “deus ex machina” arrives in a rather absurd coincidence to resolve matters. As if all this weren’t enough, there’s a tacked-on epilogue which, one supposes, is intended to match the once-shocking denouement of the original “Apes” (as well as–from a pragmatic point of view–to set the stage for a sequel), but comes off as silly and pointless as the close of one of Rod Serling’s poorer “Twilight Zone” episodes.

Overall, this scenario–pedestrian, to be sure, but until the dumb final scene at least an acceptable variant on the first picture–is competently transferred to the screen. The production design and art direction are impressive, the makeup (by Rick Baker) is as good as one would expect (though hardly realistic), the music by Danny Elfman is heavy on the jungle-drums percussiveness that seems obligatory but still aids the action, and the editing keeps things moving briskly. The performances are at best workmanlike across the board, with Wahlberg stolid but okay as the spaceman (true to his intention to be taken as a real actor, he eschews the old loincloth and remains fully-dressed throughout–which might disappoint some female viewers). Roth, of course, masticates any scenery within reach of his prominent fake teeth with obvious relish. And Charlton Heston makes a brief appearance as the general’s dying father, who imparts to his son a terrible secret and a directive to wipe out the human rebels. As written, his scene is a kind of jokey cadenza, spoofing both his role in the earlier film and his public persona; it’s amusing enough, but, as cadenzas always are, intrusive and showy. Most of the other humor comes in the form of asides that call to mind modern lines that have become part of our cultural consciousness–one that’s derived from Barry Goldwater, another that sounds vaguely Reaganesque, a third (spoken in italics by Giamatti) that refers to a celebrated racial incident. (One doesn’t want to be overly specific here and spoil the little fun the viewer’s likely to have in catching them.) Generally, however, the dialogue is awfully tame and obvious–domesticated Burton, as it were.

And that’s the basic problem with “Planet of the Apes.” Like “Jurassic Park III,” it’s a fairly efficient but ultimately pallid piece, reasonably easy to endure but, in this case, a serious disappointment considering the source. If, in making it, Burton was allowed to be Burton, it appears he’s forgotten what made his previous pictures special, even when they weren’t first-rate. This time around, he’s gone a standard route, and while the result might satisfy the undemanding looking for an air conditioned spot in the summer heat, it offers little more than that; one can only wonder what magic the fellow who thought up “Beetlejuice,” “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and “Edward Scissorhands” might once have worked on this material.