As the only surviving member of the human lineage, our species is profoundly alone in the universe. But what if our closest living relatives could take a giant leap closer to humankind? "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" marries questions about the nature of humanity with all the action one expects from a summer blockbuster.
In the film, coming August 5, scientist Will Rodman (James Franco) develops a way to stimulate brain cell growth for pharmaceutical corporation Gen-Sys. The gene therapy, which relies on a virus to insert beneficial DNA into cells, is tested in chimps and promoted as a cure for Alzheimer's — a personal quest for Will, whose father, Charles (John Lithgow), suffers from the disease. (One can draw a parallel here between the progress of the apes and the regression of the man.)
Will secretly takes one of the lab chimps home with him, Caesar (Andy Serkis), and gives his father the virus. Raising the infant chimp humanizes the once cold, emotionally distant scientist, just as the chimp shows increasingly human-like intelligence and behavior. However, conflict with the outside world becomes inevitable — "gorilla warfare," one might say.
The movie is obviously rooted in the "Planet of the Apes" movies, the "Star Wars" of their day. Still, it owes much to other science fiction, such as "Flowers for Algernon," a story about intelligence augmentation — indeed, Will's father, Charles, might be a sly reference to that tale's main character. Another sci-fi classic that comes to mind is Isaac Asimov's "The Ugly Little Boy," where a scientist raises a Neanderthal child.
Now it seems highly unlikely that one gene therapy could trigger a suite of changes that essentially mimic millions of years of human evolution. Intriguingly, however, these changes do at least have some foundations one can find in science. For instance, former performing chimp Oliver apparently preferred walking upright, so much so that he was sensationally touted as a missing link or "humanzee." Scientists are also mapping genetic differences between humans and chimps, some of which may be linked with larger brain size, and in the last decade, researchers have identified genes linked speech and language, such as FOXP2.
Is the movie perfect? No, of course not. There are complaints one could level at many Hollywood blockbusters — that character was sacrificed for action, for instance, or that there are more explosions than strictly necessary, or that the villains are cartoonishly evil. There are criticisms that scientists can bring up regarding the plot — that the corporation in the movie seems to have an inconceivable number of apes at their immediate disposal for experiments, for example, or that researchers in the film make astoundingly dangerous choices that might beggar belief.
Where the film does shine are the themes it explores, such as those regarding the nature of humanity. James Franco told me of a book he read by Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael Cunningham, "Specimen Days," which contained three stories — one that took place in the past, one in the present and one in the future. At first, humanity set itself as above the rest of the world because of our intellect, "but now that computers can remember more and think faster than we can, and that's not going to stop, we I think define ourselves by how much we can feel, by our emotions, and when you say, 'Oh, it was so human,' that means it was so full of feeling," Franco says.
"This film, 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes,' takes the idea of the animal and gives it the intelligence of the human," Franco adds. "Now we're in a weird place where humans have to interact with this species that is both stronger than we are and as smart as we are or smarter, and then really, how can humans claim to be the chosen species?"
At the same time, the actors said they took care not to anthropomorphize the apes. Although chimpanzees share many similarities with humans, they also possess a host of differences not just with us, but with other close relatives. For instance, while chimps are known to practice war, infanticide and cannibalism, bonobos are known to have sex as easily as we have handshakes. (The film would probably have been very different, and X-rated, if it were "Rise of the Planet of the Bonobos.")
Moreover, Andy Serkis, who portrayed Caesar, told me he took care not to make him too much like other chimps, since his brain was so different. Instead, he took inspiration from child prodigies.
When robots come up in science fiction or in real life, a common reaction is fear and loathing. But what if we saw our creations the same way they are portrayed in this film, as what they in a sense are — our children? As science progresses in the direction the film portrays, that question may be one that we one day have to answer.