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Thanks a Lot, James Franco: How Sci-fi Makes Science Look Bad

Rise of the Planet of the Apes, released August 5th, tells the story of Caesar, a super-intelligent chimpanzee made an outcast among both humans and his fellow chimps, which turns him into a primate Che Guevara as he leads an ape army through San Francisco.The cause of his super-intelligence is an experimental Alzheimer’s drug that works even better than its creator, a scientist played by James Franco, had hoped.

James Franco, seen here dooming us all

James Franco, seen here dooming us all

You might think that Rise would treat a potential cure to Alzheimer’s disease as a miracle, but the film isn’t so sure. When Franco gives his Alzheimer’s afflicted father (John Lithgow) an extra-powerful dose of the medicine, it kills him, at which point Franco’s girlfriend tells him, “Some things weren’t meant to be changed.”

That’s right: Rise of the Planet of the Apes suggests that maybe shouldn’t try to cure Alzheimer’s disease.

This is actually not an uncommon sentiment. Many of the most popular science-fiction films are anti-science. In I Am Legend, the implied cause of the zombie/vampire apocalypse is a potential cure for cancer. In both Splice and David Cronenberg’s The Fly, scientific research winds up creating a human/animal hybrid that murders several people.The Net portrays Sandra Bullock as some kind of hermit because she uses the Internet. In Hollow Man, an invisibility serum turns Kevin Bacon into a murderous psychopath. In Jurassic Park, Jeff Goldblum tells billionaire philanthropist Richard Attenborough, “There’s nothing great about discovery … What you call discovery, I call the rape of the natural world!”, which was definitely what Jonas Salk was thinking when he discovered a vaccine for polio.

The trend goes all the way back to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (not to be confused with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the Kenneth Branagh movie), arguably the first science-fiction story, in which the titular doctor’s creation becomes his undoing.

Films like those mentioned above exploit our basest fears about technology. We all worry about how the progression of technology is going to affect our future, whether it’s the fear that carbon-monoxide from cars contributes to global warming (legitimate), or that cell-phones cause cancer (semi-legitimate), or that the activation of a particle accelerator will create a black hole that destroys the Earth (insane). The idea that technological progress is killing mankind might have made more sense back when Frankenstein was written and the Industrial Revolution turning cities into rotten cesspools, but it’s downright absurd in today’s world.

The Large Hadron Collider, seen here dooming us all

Now, I’m certain that no one behind films like I Am Legend or Rise of the Planet of the Apes really think that scientists working on a miracle cure will accidentally create a super-virus that wipes out humanity, but that makes it all the more frustrating that they tell these kinds of stories. Instead of science-fiction stories that show characters having a blast with their awesome technology, we get dark, grimy films warning us about the perils of progress.

Even fun science-fiction movies aren’t fun because of the cool technology they show off, but despite it. For example: in Back to the Future, Marty McFly gets the chance to use a DeLorean converted into a time machine, maybe the coolest fake invention ever to be fake-invented. Does he have fun with it? No. Instead, he’s almost killed on multiple occasions, he gets locked in a trunk, and he gets hit on by his mom.

They are definitely great stories to be told with the moral that a huge increase in technological power without a corresponding growth in maturity and responsibility can be disastrous (for example: the excellent/mind-blowing Primer), but not every science-fiction movie has to be about that.

Really, though, I’m just tired of people using the most technologically advanced equipment to tell us stories about how we shouldn’t become reliant on technology.


About Lou Schumaker

If I had one wish, it would be for world peace. Or super-strength.


One thought on “Thanks a Lot, James Franco: How Sci-fi Makes Science Look Bad

  1. Star Trek makes science look good… except whenever the holodeck malfunctions and tries to kill people. Or when the transporter malfunctions and creates two Kirks, and then one of the Kirks tries to kill people.

    Posted by Waldo Irby | August 9, 2011, 2:41 pm

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