Sunday, 3 August 2014

Why Apes (and other species) aren't human...

I just watched the new Dawn of the Planet of the Apes film, as the first one wasn't so bad, and I enjoyed the original run of films back in the 70's. But I didn't enjoy this one much. Here's why:

Apes aren't human.

The film tries to make them seem human, American even, just hairier and stronger than us. This is a huge flaw for three reasons:
  1. It isn't credible
  2. We don't know who to root for
  3. As scifi it's less interesting.

I grew up watching Star Trek and noting that most aliens looked pretty much like us, and strived to be more like us most of the time. As a kid, it's reassuring to know that even though there may be monsters out there, they can learn to be humane and get along with us, and we'll be at the top of the pile because our values are noble and strong and true.

But like I say, I grew up. Humans kill leach other, trash the planet, etc. Sure, nobility exists, and individually we can try to make a difference, but collectively we have a long way to go. Besides, we're not mono-cultural ourselves. I travel a lot, and Hollywood's version of human values is pretty narrow, once you go to the Middle East, Africa, Asia, South America, China, etc. So, if we can be so different as a species, surely aliens would be far more different, and also they themselves wouldn't be monocultural, would they?

This is one aspect the original 1970s series of films tried to cover, having different simian types have different characteristics: gorillas, chimps, orangutans... The latest version touches on that, but it's too little too late. What would have been nice was to have had someone who knew about apes - who had studied them and observed them for years - advise on how they could evolve - merely having them walk a bit like apes and occasionally scratch their heads is not enough (plenty of humans do both, lol).

You could argue that because they were raised by humans they would copy their behavior and values, but since humans oppressed them in the story, it doesn't seem so likely. Not only that, but the apes ride horses, can shoot guns, try to read and speak like we do. Really?

Who to root for
Who are the bad guys in this movie? One particular human, one particular gorilla. The rest are misguided. Lots get killed on both sides. Probably this is intentional, the moral being that neither species is better than the other, they all have good and bad. But then how is this going to play out in the inevitable sequels? By the end of this film I no longer cared, and recalled that in the original series, one film (Beneath the Planet of the Apes) had the surviving (mutated) humans build the ultimate weapon and destroy the whole planet. In that series of films, you knew who to root for - a few of the humans, and the Chimps. But on a species level the Apes came out top, as the humans had treated them so badly.

Interesting SciFi
If you want to know and understand horses, or dolphins, or apes, it takes years of study. When we finally meet aliens, it will take decades. A lot of people who read and watch SciFi want to be surprised, to have their usual thoughts challenged. When writing aliens, I  try to make part of their culture and behavior unknowable, unfathomable. Occasionally they seem to be acting like humans, but then they will go and do or say something that is, as Iain Banks used to say, out of context. Some writers such as Peter F. Hamilton, David Brin, and Orson Scott Card, do this admirably. Few films manage it, however, though near the end of the film Prometheus, directed by Ridley Scott, there's a nice scene when the humans finally succeed in reviving one of the alien engineers, whose behavior is, well, unexpected.

I often have the feeling that SciFi films start off well (e.g. Elysium) and then they get dominated by Box Office pressure to make it more mainstream, a blockbuster, and the SciFi get's dumbed down. I never understand why. People are not that dumb, they can handle it, and the SciFi fans will lap it up if the screenwriters and producers will just take a little risk. One of my favourite directors, James Cameron (Terminator; Abyss; Avatar), is receiving a special award in a few weeks at the American Film Festival in Deauville. Maybe I'll go there and try and have a word...

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