Just saw Rise of the Planet of the Apes. It was a thrilling ride, that kept me glued to the edge of my seat. I was thinking I would do a review that looked at the some of the science in the film and then I came across THIS:
The plight of chimpanzees in the wild, the human-like abilities of the great apes, gene therapy, the evolution of language, the billions of dollars that could be made from an Alzheimer’s cure, the risk of pandemics. If you’ve been waiting for a scientifically literate blockbuster, your wait is over. Rise of the Planet of the Apes is packed with fascinating, cutting-edge science. Whether that’s a good thing for a movie, however, is another matter.
The story concerns a scientist, Will Rodman (James Franco), who is developing an experimental gene therapy treatment for Alzheimer’s disease, which his father (John Lithgow) suffers from. Will works for an evil pharmaceutical company, GynSys, and is testing his drug – delivered by a virus – on chimps. In the real world, of course, this sort of early-stage testing is done on mice or rats, but testing on primates is much more emotive a subject for a film. In any case the idea – to create new neurons to replace those killed by Alzheimer’s, and so improve memory – is spot on.
As a movie experience, however, things have already gone awry. It’s all very impressive, technically, and the apes look wonderful. Unlike Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes or the earlier franchise, this time we don’t have people in suits, and no real apes are used. Instead we have motion-capture, CGI apes, lead by Andy Serkis of Gollum fame. Serkis says the movie has the biggest and most complex performance-capture sequences ever made.
That’s a shame. Whereas I found Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes to be “speciesist” in its treatment of nonhuman apes, Wyatt’s film is very much pro-ape. Great apes – gorillas, bonobos, chimps and orangutans – are endangered species, and anything that alerts audiences to their plight has got to be good. But despite the pro-ape stance, Wyatt still ends up with an “us versus them” story. Though there are some lovely moments – such as where you see Caesar facing self-doubt, something chimps really do experience – the moral of the film is the same that Mary Shelley had in Frankenstein. Here it is left to Will’s vet girlfriend (Freida Pinto) to summarise: “You are trying to control things that are not meant to be controlled,” she tells Will.
In other words, the message seems to be that some things are meant to be, you shouldn’t “play God”, and that science is evil if left unchecked. Perhaps the movie isn’t so scientifically literate after all.
There you have it, a detailed look at the plot and the science. Is there anything left for me to say? For sure, so here goes:
1. Why are scientists shown to be somewhat stupid in SciFi books and films? In the novel Blood Music by Greg Bear:
renegade biotechnologist Vergil Ulam creates simple biological computers based on his own lymphocytes. Faced with orders from his nervous employer to destroy his work, he injects them into his own body, intending to smuggle the ‘noocytes’ (as he calls them) out of the company and work on them elsewhere. Inside Ulam’s body, the noocytes multiply and evolve rapidly, altering their own genetic material and quickly becoming self-aware.
Here Will injects his father with an experimental drug! I would say that in real life the chances of this happening are minuscule.
2. Freida Pinto has the most inane and bland role ever, or maybe that is simply Freida. You can see how the role narration went. “You will sew up a chimp injury, look concerned, kiss the leading man, and be in bed with him”.
3. Yes the characters are truly black and white, the drug company executives are money grubbing jerks, the scientists are naive and well meaning – but they WILL destroy the planet one day! Or that is what Hollywood would have us believe. But as summer blockbusters go, this one is still one that does not completely offend one’s intelligence.
4. The CGI goes several orders of magnitude above and beyond what we saw in King Kong. Caesar’s face and emotions shown by him and the other apes really put a human stamp on the characters.
5. The end credits are totally worth it. So now we know how it became the planet of the apes. What about the humans who “arrive” on the planet? I am betting it has something to do with that Mars mission that the TV news talks about in the film.