Semi-spoiler alert – catch the movie first if knowing the outcome will bother you (although since this is a prequel you’re fairly out of the loop if you don’t know what happens in the end).
Contrary to what you might be thinking, this isn’t a post to completely pick apart the massive scientific oversights of Hollywood’s current blockbuster. After a $54 million opening box office weekend it’s a veritable truism that people don’t really mind when science is portrayed in a rather indulgent way – and as a fan of the movie I’m also willing to forgive a certain level of scientific silliness. The characters are presented in such a way that one is really rooting for ridiculous. I found myself really hoping that the 500lb silverback gorilla who leapt off the Golden Gate bridge would make it into the enemy helicopter and fend off the shower of bullets that threatened his comrade Caesar the chimp, though I’m perfectly aware that A) physics might have a thing or two to say about that, and B) gorillas (along with most members of the animal kingdom) aren’t remotely altruistic towards members of other species. In the name of Hollywood I’ll allow it, along with several other fantastical aspects of primate behavior, virus propagation, and super-drug functions that are seen in the movie.
However, as a scientist, I feel like a few major missteps should be at least acknowledged because they help to perpetuate the distinct divide between scientists and society. Of course we know it’s absurd for a gorilla to take a flying leap – but certain generalizations made in the movie about scientists are less absurd, and therefore might be considered as status quo. Yes Rupert Wyatt, I realize that an accurate portrayal of scientific protocols would have muddled the plotline, but some things simply cannot go unstated. I’m sure that it won’t mess with your box office trend, and I’ll feel much better for clarifying.
Myth #1: Scientists do not replicate their work
In the opening scenes we see our scientist hero (portrayed by James Franco) observing his test subject chimp complete a pyramid puzzle. She completes the puzzle in record time after being exposed to drug #1 – leading Franco to immediately proclaim the success of his science and set up a multi-million dollar funding scheme for his miracle cure to alzheimers disease (sample size = 1). Here’s the thing: scientific results are based on replicability and statistics. It really means nothing for one chimp to have altered its behavior in a certain way, and as a ‘scientist’, Franco’s character should really have known better. Sadly, he does the same thing later in the film, and is awarded a major set of funds to develop drug #2 based on the fact that he shot up his dad with the same virus (sample size = 1).
Myth #2: Scientists base their results on one type of experiment
The only kind of scientific results presented in the movie are those from the ‘all telling’ pyramid test (known by mathematicians as the ‘Towers of Hanoi’). While this test is certainly used in cognitive science, it is only one of a massive set of tools designed to highlight different areas of brain function and performance. In much the same way that a scientist would NEVER get away without statistically significant replication, they would not get away with making major conclusions about brain function from the results of one kind of experiment.
Myth #3: Scientists are not observant
After our scientist hero has decided that his first superdrug is a winner, his test subject chimp goes on an erratic rampage around the lab, smashing and crashing her way past security and into the board meeting where he’s pleading his case to potential investors. We find out a short while later that the reason she was behaving so aggressively was because she was protecting her newborn baby chimp – who will later become the film’s hero - which was a complete surprise to everyone in the lab, including our PI James Franco.
Chimps are our closest primate relatives. Gestation is around 9 months, and pregnant females get big round bellies like we do. Since our lady chimp in question was observed doing her pyramid tests on a fairly frequent basis, one would imagine that someone might have noticed her condition. But to completely miss a female chimp giving birth in her small cage? The noise? The mess? THE EXTRA CHIMPANZEE? Come on Hollywood – you simply cannot buy my affections by portraying scientists as completely unaware of their research subjects. Scientists pride themselves on their powers of observation…that’s what we do.
So to all fans and friends of ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’, all I’m asking is that you keep these myths in mind when you’re watching the film. It’s a GREAT movie, the digital animation is superb – and it doesn’t do too badly at constructing a semi-plausible story for how apes ultimately took over the planet (the best, most scientifically accurate part of the film chronicles the spread of the virus during the closing credits). Just remember that even the serious bits – the science bits- are not meant to be a realistic portrayal of how scientists work. James Franco had to be a crappy scientist. Zero replication and poor observation were essential in order for the plot to work out as it did.