Monday, 15 August 2011

#24 Rise of the Planet of the Apes: Hollywood Loves Alzheimers

In-keeping with this month's "Apocalypses that don't include zombies" theme, this week we're going to be looking at the Ape-Pocalypse.

I’ve been hurt before. It was 2001, I was 16 or 17, an innocent, almost naive soul full of hope for the future. Then one day, I recommended to a friend that we go and see a film. That film was a remake of one of my favourite classic sci-fi movies directed by someone whose other films I liked. It seemed like the perfect match. Look! I didn’t know! Okay? I was young! I didn’t know!
Fuck you forever, Tim Burton
I would never be the same again after that fateful day. The Planet of the Apes remake featured Mark Wahlberg with a face marginally less convincing than the prosthetic ape masks, the moral that racism is probably just the fault of like, one bad person, and a twist ending where... the bad ape becomes Abraham Lincoln? Or something?
More like APE-braham Lincoln! Am I right?
So you can understand, I was cautious when it was announced that yet another Planet of the Apes film was being made- Especially since there had been only one decent Planet of the Apes film made after the first one. (It was the third one).

So you can imagine my relief when it turned out that Rise of the Planet of the Apes is not in any way a remake, prequel or reboot of the Planet of the Apes series. Let me explain. From here on, there may be spoilers- although admittedly, none as bad as the bloody cover of the original Planet of the Apes DVD.
The clue is on the left
You see, Planet of the Apes is a story where science is the hero. There’s some not-very-subtle criticism of vivisection, and some light-hearted fun is poked at Darwinism, but at its bare bones Planet of the Apes is the story of some scientists eager to discover the truth about their world, against the wishes of the religious rulers of their society.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes on the other hand, is about scientists who, while trying to find a cure for Alzheimer’s disease, inadvertently make some animals super intelligent, who then turn on the humans. This is not the plot of Planet of the Apes, or the even the ill-conceived Planet of the Apes sequel/prequel Conquest of the Planet of the Apes.

This is the plot of Deep Blue Sea.
A film entirely worth it for Samuel L Jackson's death scene
Deep Blue Sea is not a film with an overriding love of science.  The reason sharks turn super smart and start killing people in that film is because they were being used to develop a cure of Alzheimer’s and the scientists “used gene therapies to increase their brain mass. A larger brain means more protein. As a side effect the sharks got smarter.” In Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the main character boasts that “Our therapy enables the brain to repair itself.”

In Planet of the Apes, Dr. Zaius, the religious leader of the ape society is shown to argue “There is no contradiction between faith and science... true science!” and when Charlton Heston goes in search of the truth, Zauis warns “Don't look for it, Taylor. You may not like what you find.” Throughout Planet of the Apes it is made clear that if somebody argues that “there are some thing man (or ape) was not meant to know” it is because there is something that they want hidden, that ignorance is being maintained for a purpose.

In Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the sensitive, hot looking veterinarian who becomes the love interest says “Some things aren't meant to be changed.” And by some things, she means Alzheimer’s disease.

In order to ensure a balanced and fair review I thought it fair to provide an Ape perspective on the film, and so I invited our blog’s favourite subhuman primate along to the film- Hello Bear bassist Tom Harvey. Tom exhibits the basic problem solving and communication skills of an untrained chimpanzee, so his views would naturally be valuable.

T: I have a degree in biomedical sciences.
He likes to fling poop!
In exchange for some bananas and dried fruit, Tom used a series of primitive hand signals to raise the following objections:

1.    Show me a life saving drug which has taken 5 years to develop, in the modern age. Please, I'm intrigued to see if any have gone to trials on non-human primates in such a short space of time.
    2.    The term "statistical significance" seemed to have been ignored - One positive result in apes, compared to several negative, would never leda to trials in humans.
    3.    You can't just wander into a lab and steal chemicals, even if you're a lead researcher.
    4.    Likewise, you can't just walk into a lab and steal animals - ask PETA.
    5.    If an animal was pregnant before or during testing, this would be spotted.
    6.    Scientists (to my knowledge) won't buy any old animal from any old criminal.
    7.    A shareholder can't just walk in to a lab and say "test on humans, to make me money".
    8.    Where were the published results of the animal trial? I'm sure the 3rd reviewer (and 1st and 2nd) would have had something to say about the methodology.
    9.    I'm pretty sure it's frowned upon to have "veterans" of testing (with regards to test subjects). The regulatory bodies might have something to say about this.
    10.    Speaking of regulatory bodies….where were they? For the lab, and the animal sanctuary.
    11.    No randomisation of the animals in the studies either - they were specifically picked out (by the CEO of the pharmaceutical company - even more ridiculous)
    12.    The scientists didn't seem to be "blinded" to the treatment groups either.
    13.    Were there control groups? No mention made.
    14.    The claim is made that apes have "much stronger immune systems than humans". This is not something I've ever heard previously.
    15.    The virus somehow manages to alter the genes in many different subtypes of cells - in the brain, the gametes, and in the cardiovascular system. Doesn't sound particularly well designed if it lacks specificity.
    16.    Also, the scientist seemed to be good at talking to women….no way.

I assume these are things he learned while researchers unsuccessfully tried to train him to release food pellet by press a button.

Still, what the hell? It’s called science fiction, not science... is... real... thing. What does it matter if they got a few details wrong while pushing a message that scientists are irresponsible, hubristic madmen who will stop at nothing to create their precious medicine?

Well, the fact is, these stories are where a lot of people get their idea of what science is. Hell- the only reason I was interested in science as kid was because I assumed my job would be pretty much the same as Doctor Emmet Brown’s.

Not pictured: The "control" DeLorean
And this has very real consequences for the way science is reported. Only last month the Daily Mail warned that a “Planet of the Apes scenario” could result from scientists researching with human-animal hybrid embryos- that live in a petri dish for 14 days before being destroyed. Some scientists believe that this could lead to a supply of stem cells that could be used to investigate debilitating and so far untreatable diseases including, among others, Alzheimer's disease.

Objections to this research come from religious groups of the Dr. Zaius variety, and from those who think movies like Rise of the Planet of the Apes are a documentary. There are important ethical questions that arise with the dawn of any new research- This is why there exist ethical committees, because believe it or not, scientists put a lot of thought into how their research can be misused. And we’re right to ask questions about that research. But films like this don’t further that discussion, all they really do is continue demonstrate just how much Hollywood loves Alzheimer’s.

1 comment:

  1. "My god, it's a city of Apes!"

    I have a feeling that if they flug poop and peed in their own mouths, the box office figures might not be so impressive.