Note to Hollywood: I’d rather be evil than dumb

August 10, 2011 § Leave a comment

I went to see Rise of the Planet of the Apes this weekend, and I’ve been wondering ever since why the portrayal of the scientist in this movie bothered me so much.  I’m used to bad science in movies, of course; I have a weakness for the cheesy summer movie, and this means that one cannot be too sensitive.  I’ve developed immunity to the “So, Mr. Bond, when the timer ticks down to zero my killer virus will be released!  AhahaHAhaaa…” type of scientific villain, and even to the “give me five minutes… There!  The cure is ready” type of scientific hero (though the latter still makes me wince, a little).  And I fully expected that a movie about the apes taking over the earth would involve some human stupidity/arrogance/evil; it’s more or less a dramatic necessity.  But the character of Will Rodman, the intended-to-be-sympathetic gooey-around-the-edges scientist who sets off the whole storyline with his attempts to cure Alzheimer’s, still made me squirm.  It’s not just that he’s been experimenting on a pregnant chimpanzee without ever realizing she’s pregnant, or even that he wants to rush to clinical trials about 5 minutes after getting the first positive result on a single chimp.  I could probably ignore the fact that he SO wants his experiment to be successful that he’s no longer willing to look at data in an unbiased way.  All of these issues grate, but they’re not the main problem. I finally realized what made me so uncomfortable about this character.  It’s the fact that he’s just not very curious about the hyperintelligent chimp he accidentally creates.

As a result of a number of unlikely circumstances, Caesar the chimp ends up living in Will’s home.  He gets a nice bedroom with lots of things to swing on, a chess set, and occasional trips to Muir Woods to climb the redwoods — but no company, no serious education, and no attempts to help him to understand his situation.  Inevitably, as Caesar hits puberty he begins to get a little dissatisfied with his lot; meanwhile Will is having romantic picnics with his lady friend instead of paying attention.  Now be honest, do you know any scientist who could prevent themselves from giving Caesar intelligence tests until he refuses to do them any more, or who wouldn’t try to teach him everything he could possibly absorb?  Surely it would be far more realistic if the gorgeous lady friend were pouting about Will spending too much time with Caesar, instead of Caesar being the one to feel neglected. Characteristically, Randall Munroe has a much more accurate take on the scientific personality:

I could handle a scientist who was callous about the needs of a developing intelligence, or one who was tortured by the situation (Caesar’s presence in Will’s home is of dubious legality at best, which could have provided an excuse for why Will doesn’t allow him to interact with anyone, doesn’t give reports on his progress at scientific meetings, etc.). But blithely, stupidly unconcerned and unexcited about the tremendous implications of Caesar’s intelligence… that’s hard to swallow.  I guess I find the evil scientist more plausible than the disengaged scientist.  I guess I’d rather be portrayed as evil than dumb.

All that said, the movie is a perfectly good summer blockbuster, with lovely shots of apes swarming over the beautiful Golden Gate bridge.  It made me nostalgic for San Francisco.  You should go.

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