Ape Culture and Science Culture on the Planet of the Apes

Even in the small theater where I saw Rise of the Planet of the Apes, it was clear that this is, to some degree, a father and son movie - there were several father and son pairs in the audience - more than I've seen in any other movie. "Yes, son, now you will see why our planet eventually will be taken over by apes." "Yes, dad, now you will see how CGI replaces this Roddy McDowell person you keep talking about."

Caution: spoilers.

Andy Serkis's Caesar and the rest of the ape-men were wonderful, as was slow build of the story. I also loved that the apes' goal was not world domination but to spend some time in the Muir Woods (although apparently this changes later in the series). The filmmakers clearly spent a lot of time getting the apes and orangutans and chimpanzees "right". I was a bit hesitant about seeing it at first since I don't like James Franco's so called "acting" (really mostly a lot of frowning) - but the ape-actors and the rest of the ensemble so overshadowed him that I barely retched at all. It was also nice that the writers and the filmmakers concentrated all of their inaccuracies into his character - somehow it seemed easier to take a bad actor playing a badly written character (and compared to Caesar, Franco's character, and the portrayal of science in the movie, seemed to have been written by a monkey).

The character of Caesar is beautifully complex and conflicted; simultaneously altruistic and cruel, understanding of group dynamics and yet with strong personal needs. We get to watch Caesar as a playful toddler and as a sulky teen - it is a wonderfully written and played part. The only "major" problem with the apes seemed to be their superpowered ability to jump through glass windows without ever being cut - it was surprising no one noticed this beneficial side effect to the drug. (It would be nice, however, to hear a primatologist's take on the characters of the apes in the film.)

Sadly, in contrast, if the filmmakers had spent even an hour googling "drug discovery" or "pharmaceutical development" they would have been able to write a less ridiculous portrayal of the scientists. A decent science advisor could have spent 2 hours with the script and made it far less embarrassing. Where to begin:

At the start of the film, Franco's scientist notices the only positive result with his drug over a five-year period, and instantly goes into a board meeting to request human trials for his drug. The writing is so bad that within a minute or two after he notes that this is the only positive result in five years, he tells his CEO that he has five years of support data (no one caught this contradiction in the script?). And here's a google search word for the writers: "FDA" - you see in this country pharmaceutical companies have to build up a multi-year case they submit to the FDA to request human trials (oh, wait, it's not just this country, there's a similar process in EVERY country). And it was wonderfully inane when Franco's character convinces the CEO of the company to restart testing in chimpanzees: something that would be carefully and critically evaluated in any real biotech company - especially since testing in primates can run into the millions, but in this movie it occurs during a walk down the hallway where the "scientist" reveals that his data, collected on his own father, is both illegal and undocumented in any way. I believe that even abused pet-shop monkeys know more about drug discovery than these screenwriters did.

While there are mounds of inanely inaccurate science details in the movie, a vast majority of them fall into one major pattern: they portray the science as long periods of total inactivity, followed by a single, sudden, spectacular result (often with no documentation) that then sparks profound action (like restarting a multi-million dollar project). For example: after 3 years of playing with Caesar at home, suddenly Franco's character has a modified viral drug that works! To some outside observers, science must actually look like this - but what most sci-fi and sci-reality movies have done recently is more accurately portray the mounds of work and data that fill those "apparent empty spaces" between the major discoveries. The screenwriters for this movie must have missed that major ongoing push in the arts.

All in all, the movie is definitely exciting, and the plot is both emotionally and "humanly" satisfying in many ways, and even with the plot reboot it effectively connects to the original series in satisfying ways, but if, as several science outreach studies have noted, the public gets a fair amount of their "science education" from popular media, then sadly, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a definitive de-evolutionary step in this process.

PS: Take a look at this really nice (and similarly themed) Planet of the Apes review over at the PsiVid blog at Scientific American.

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I saw the movie at my wife's request. I was pleasantly surprised at the slow build of the story and at the amount of time devoted to developing the character of Caesar.

Yes, the movie failed the science test, but I give the creators credit with at least attempting to tell a story and not just wow the audience with CGI effects.

When all other options fail, many people are willing to embrace the hope, and the risk, of an experimental drug. it may have failed on the science but it did a good job of portraying the human dilemma families face when they are watching a loved one slip away.

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By michael kors h… (not verified) on 22 Sep 2014 #permalink