Of Apes and Sci-fi

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When recently I held forth on sci-fi vs fantasy, I tried to enumerate the attributes of each, and identified a critical point of difference.

Being somewhat of an expert in this area, I think I succeeded. At the very least, the heuristic proposed for distinguishing between the genres has withstood the inevitable “but what about [insert random sci-fi/fantasy title here]”, as correspondents try to tear apart my logic.

But wait – don’t get me wrong – I welcome the scrutiny, because people who ask the “but what about..” questions are actually doing science (wave your arms in the air and say ‘yay’). They are testing the theory by examining the evidence and trying to falsify the theory. Excellent. It’s really not good enough for me or anyone else to simply pick titles that fit in with my theory, for that is simply confirmation bias, which is a major source of error for unwary (or unprincipled) scientist.

Having said that, I’ll now get down from the pulpit to say that it’s still ok to point out good examples to illustrate the theory, as long as we are not claiming them as proof.

That then gives me the (thinly-veiled) opportunity to talk about the new prequel to the Planet of the Apes series, which charts the ascent of the apes as the dominant species on Earth. As it happens it’s an excellent movie, and an excellent example of science fiction. Those who may describe it as pure fantasy would make the point that surely it’s fantasy to think that talking apes will be the dominant species. (Note: For the uninitiated, what I have just done is create a ‘straw man’. Not that I would stoop so low, but many use this device to make their discussion look clever, by shooting the proverbial sitting duck in a barrel. I reckon it’s ok if you declare it though, and especially if it is used for analytical purposes, rather than winning an argument.)

As background, here is the premise of the movie. A longer description can be found here. In a nutshell, in the original movie starring Charlton Heston, a bunch of astronauts crash land on a planet which they find to be inhabited by evolved apes, who have non-speaking humanoids as captives. Inevitably Chuck is captured and is the oddity among the humans, due to his ability to speak. In one great scene, when grabbed by an ape, Chuck utters the now immortal words “get your hands off me you damned dirty ape“, a phrase which I find particular useful in many social situations. Adventures ensue, and he escapes with the help of a sympathetic Cornelius (Roddy McDowell). As he rides along a desolate beach, he falls to his knees in despair when he spies the remnants of the Statue of Liberty poking out of the sand, and realises that this is not an alien planet, but the Earth in a distant future when humans have been subjugated by apes. While not the author of the story, Rod Serling (of Twilight Zone fame) wrote the script, and that stunning conclusion has all the hallmarks of Serling. Just sayin’.

In the new movie we learn how the planet got to be that way. It turns out that a new treatment intended to cure neurological diseases such as Parkinsons, actually enhances ape intelligence, but at the same time is a virulent pathogen for humans. That’s the ‘science’ in the science-fiction.

So, back to the straw man, I mean, analysis. It’s quite simple.  If it were a fantasy genre, the film would have been about astronauts who crash land on a planet populated by apes and have adventures of all sorts, getting captured, liberating a valuable trinket with powers, and a heroine no doubt, and making the escape. Think Star Wars and the ewoks. In contrast, the POTA series is primarily about the origins of the inhabitants, not simply a backdrop for some adventures and unexplained mysticism.

Regardless of its genre or the back story (or should that be forward story?), the movie is excellent in its own right – it’s possible to suspend any disbelief in the premise due to the brilliant computer graphics responsible for the apes themselves, and just go with the story. Not a bad way to kill a couple of hours.


2 thoughts on “Of Apes and Sci-fi

    Blamer .. (@blamer) said:
    August 18, 2011 at 11:43 pm

    This latest movie certainly has the “technology” element, so my own flimsy thesis (as per your last post on this topic) still holds…….. I think!

    Anyway for the record, I really enjoyed Rise Of quite a lot. That is, despite (or perhaps because of) my rather low expectations. I now consciously try to give a film a star rating before I’ve seen it, as well as afterwards. See, in my mind it’s all about the delta. Surely others have thought through this “expectation” effect a lot more clearly than me. I’m just fun with it. I recommend it *and* use it.

      rationalbrain said:
      August 19, 2011 at 8:52 am

      The delta approach is interesting. I suspect we all subconsciously apply that to assessing any experience. I think it’s the origin of the saying “if you’re pessimistic, you’re never disappointed”. But the delta was a component of my enjoyment – I expected lower quality of ape rendering, and also probably a hokey story. On the contrary, the characters looked convincing, and the story was engaging.
      We’ve gotten used to some pretty low-delta efforts – for example, Star Trek movies 1, 3,4 & 5! Or this season of Dr. Who. or Torchwood, and I’m sure we can think of many more. Hence being pessimistic is a good strategy to avoid disappointment, and only serves to enhance your enjoyment (delta) should the product be better than expected.

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