Maybe humanity won’t be #1 on Earth forever…
We’ve been used to being at the top of the heap pretty much since we picked up some stones and started making tools. But what’s going to happen if another species — real (like apes) or artificial (like robots) — gets the same idea? Fortunately, we have a couple of cautionary tales to consider that should give us pause before we get too cavalier.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is the prequel to the re-boot of the ’60s-’70s franchise that started it all and sets out to answer the question that has always undermined the franchise: How would apes really pull off this switcheroo with humankind? With genomes being mapped and wonder drugs being tested at record speed these days, this is a film that was just begging to be made.
Back in the mid ’00s, however, I, Robot asked a different kind of question. Sparked by the breathtaking increase in computing power keeping pace with Moore’s Law or even Ray Kurzweil’s invocation of The Singularity, that question was: How much longer before these machines gain consciousness and become smarter than we are?
Of course, the answer to both questions involves those of us of the human persuasion falling messily from our perch at the top and getting bruised up pretty good in the process. So, should you fear your apocalyptic nightmare of replacement most from genetic engineering or computer technology? Either way, be afraid. We are.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a straight-ahead origin story that fully sets out how the apes supplant humanity in the future. Set in present day San Francisco, the film blends science fiction with science fact, giving us James Franco in the lead as a genius whose experiments with genetic engineering lead to the enhanced evolution of the apes, who eventually win their freedom and, in a coda to the film so muffled that many in the audience won’t catch it, are set up to take over the planet.
While Franco gets top billing, the film really belongs to Andy Serkis, who was transformed by cutting-edge performance-capture technology into Caesar, the super-intelligent chimp at the center of the story. Serkis, who played Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, brings to the role not only a very convincing primate physicality, but also a facial expressiveness that allows us to sympathize with him and his rebellious tribe over the greedheads and nincompoops of our own species.
The Defending Champion
Then in the ’00s there was I, Robot, semi-based on Isaac Asimov’s short-story collection of the same name. It starred Will Smith as a detective living in Chicago in the year 2035, when robots are ubiquitous, used primarily as servants and in public service capacities. They’re supposed to be safe, being designed in accordance with the Three Laws of Robotics, which I remember reading as a kid: 1) Robots can’t hurt people, 2) Robots must obey orders, and 3) Robots must preserve their existence unless it conflicts with the first or second law. It’s probably not a spoiler to mention that the plot comes down to the third law.
I, Robot made $347 million worldwide, so you could say it connected on some level with audiences. It’s got a brisk visual style that gives us some fun peeks into future tech and what it could be like living in Tomorrowland. The robots’ look, built from a clean CG, is a realistic take on how we’ll build them for ourselves, even if they are impossible to tell apart, except for their eyes.
This video SmashUp has been edited by Rodney Twelftree and voiced by Edd Hall of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno fame. It’s probably the most damn fun of any of them that we’ve done so far. At 1:37, watching it will still leave you plenty of time in your day to get stuff done!
Rise of the Planet of the Apes -vs- I, Robot
Hollywood story-telling thrives on conflict, and the displacement of humankind by another species is the ultimate conflict. We are variously threatened these days by vampires, zombies, aliens, and now in our Smackdown by apes and robots.
It’s also the way into the story. I, Robot is a cop drama first, just as Rise of the Apes begins as a scientific cautionary tale. Apes has the confidence to raise questions with uncomfortable answers. I, Robot is all about using the machines as cyphers to so the battle can begin and, when it does, there is a video-game quality to it.
From a sheer conflict point of view, Rise of the Apes feels more threatening and visceral. This is only partly because the story is placed in our present day while I, Robot won’t be on the calendar for more than two decades. The other part is that there is a sameness to the robot villains who, from a distance, actually do all look alike. But the apes as rendered in the new film look the most human they have ever looked in the films of this franchise — very capable of being hurt and seeking revenge and freedom at all costs. Thank Peter Jackson and his WETA Digital for that level of realism.
The truth is, even though both stories are about man’s scientific meddling run amok, we know apes are only a few DNA strands away from us on the cosmic ladder. We’ve been looking over our shoulders at them for a while now.
One place where I, Robot takes a big round is in the leads. Even when he’s in a rote, by-the-numbers plot, Will Smith’s own humanity as an actor just shines on through. In contrast, James Franco is saddled here with a character who is by turns brilliant, idiotic and ineffectual. Will Smith plays action heroes well; he can easily be a cop. James Franco excels at stoners, and the idea that he is going to let Pandora out seems unlikely. Genius is not what comes to mind when you think of this man, his academic career at UCLA and Yale notwithstanding, and he’s unable to save his poorly directed character from a badly flawed script.
Also, there is the matter of the antagonists of the two films: Caesar in Rise of the Apes and Sonny in I, Robot. This is no contest. Caesar has a character arc while Sonny doesn’t seem as authentic as Robin Williams did in Bicentennial Man or Jude Law in A.I. I’m not sure what the moral of that story is: Maybe it’s that if you want a robot to act human, hire a human to act like a robot.
The truth of the matter is that the nightmares posited by both of these films actually might happen some day. Not that apes will become geniuses but certainly our genetic tampering over the next hundred or more years holds out the possibility of breakthroughs like the one posited in Rise of the Apes. And more than a few people spend a lot of time these days wringing their hands that smart machines are ultimately going to be man’s undoing.
Both these films take great science-based premises and botch them with heavy-handed and meandering manipulation. I, Robot might have done better mining the humanity within the Asimov stories instead of settling for robotic, by-the-numbers thrills. Likewise, Apes is at its best, which is to say really, freaking good, when depicting the high-wire Serkis act of Caesar’s movements. It also does a good job bringing out the apes’ humanity, but ironically fails to provide its people with much recognizable human behavior at all. Slumdog Millionaire‘s Freida Pinto traipses through the action as little more than a beautiful prop. Franco has nothing to do in the story’s extended climax but race around and ultimately watch. Others in the cast are worse, distractions.
So when it comes to this Smackdown, what counts is which film is the better thrill-ride, and by that score, the easy winner is Rise of the Planet of the Apes. The people may not acquit themselves very well, but Caesar’s story arc and flat-out watchability win the day. And besides, the intelligence and cunning in those damn dirty apes just scares the holy living hell out of me.