Friday, September 30, 2011

Wherein I cite a different problem.

Not that long ago, I brought you a ridiculing look at WorldNet Daily's hilarious review of the film, Rise of the Planet of the Apes.  That review of the review can be seen again by following the blog link here -- Worldnuttery on Film Once Again.  Well, at the time, though, I had not actually seen the film.  Obviously, the first time I ridiculed one of WND's reviews, I had seen the film -- obviously, I would have considering that I worked on it and have my name in the credits.  This time around, I only got around to seeing the film much later...  and of course, for free (one of the perks of working in movies is that people actually share their stuff for review ...  It's SOCIALISM!!!)

Well, they had a rather laughable complaint based on the absence of a "Monkey Fall" and a "Monkey Moses" leading the "Monkey Jews" out of Egypt followed by a "Monkey Jesus" being crucified to absolve all "Monkey sins."  Okay, not quite, but pretty close.  Well, I had no problem with any of that...  or the lack thereof, to be precise.  The idea of a mother chimp being protective of her young is hardly a shock, nor is it in any way a misrepresentation of how actual apes would behave.

No, you're talking to the Grumpy Anti-theist here.  Overall, I rather liked the film, and I liked how it tied into the original series.  The space travel aspect of the film looked on the surface like a meaningless detail, but it actually serves to explain how the first film even happened, making this a nice prequel that wraps things up with a bow.  Tack on little niceties, like a reprisal of the "damn dirty ape" line from the original Charlton Heston flick, and you get something quite entertaining.  My only issue with the film is the way science is represented.

Okay, I suppose science being poorly represented in TV and movies is hardly anything new.  I mean, we have things like Star Trek telling us that viruses can become gigantic by absorbing human growth hormone...  We have Bruce Wayne's Batcave with a water spigot that has a dial to allow you to select between light and heavy water...  and tells us that heavy water is apparently made up of anti-matter.  We have DNA profiling coming back from a forensics lab in minutes instead of weeks...  to say nothing of every friggin' goddamned utterance of the word "enhance" in a cop/crime drama.

Well, the problem isn't entirely in terms of the scientific content per se.  Although quite a lot of it is way out there compared to what we can achieve today, it's not entirely inconceivable.  The very idea of gene therapy delivered through a retroviral mechanism that also has the risk of inducing ill effects is actually a very realistic approach.  Though in practice, I don't think many pharmaceutical research labs would actually approach the problem of Alzheimer's the way they do in the film.  Specifically, I don't think they would try simply to induce neuro-generation, but also prevent neuro-degeneration first.  But...  whatever.  The real problem is the level of emotional investment that James Franco's character puts in and how it affects the progress of the drug.  I can see it as a story device and all, but it's the sort of thing that would just not fly in reality, and someone who behaves that way in real life would have their scientific career ruined in a heartbeat.

Near the very beginning of the film, the drug shows promising effects on one chimp subject...  And with that, it is decided that it's good enough to pitch for clinical trials on human subjects.  "We only NEED one!", he quips.  What?  If the film had taken the tack of one really smashing success in the midst of a large population of pretty decent results, and using that to procure funding from investors for further development and studies, that would have made perfect sense.  Instead, it makes it sound as if the treatment had been largely unsuccessful, and had been adjusted, modified, iterated upon over some 5.5 years (which is an incredibly short time for major drug development), and now it shows one individual awesome result...  and that's enough to justify clinical trials.  Wow.  And with stories like this, how could anyone possibly distrust Big Pharma?

The guy goes so far as to steal vials of the drug from his lab and medicate his father.  Number one, it shouldn't be that easy to steal stuff.  Like the company has no security checks?  They have no inventory logs?  Number two...  no scientist in his right mind would do something that stupid.  This is at a point in the story where no clinical testing has been done, and nobody has any clue what sort of effect the retrovirus will have on human subjects...  but he figures...  eh.  It couldn't hurt.  While he admits his stupid action later on, the fact that the trial on the one human subject is beyond successful makes the Chairman of the company gleefully optimistic.  Gee...  I wonder if they were trying to insert some sort of corporatist message in there.

The strange bit, though, is that when the therapy is modified yet again to be delivered through a "more aggressive" retroviral strain, the stance completely flips.  The aggressive virus exhibits a far greater success rate on larger populations of apes...  something that really should have happened in the first place in order for work to continue on the drug in the first place...  but now, our friendly scientist in the white lab coat is worried and cautious.  Now, he advises being careful and doing more extensive tests before daring to release the drug into clinical trials.  Really?  Now you're a consummate professional and scientifically minded individual?  That's terrific.  Where was that when you were endangering the life of your father by administering a dangerous and untested treatment?

Don't get me wrong.  It was a good movie.  And while I can basically rail on the horrible representation of science, it is also abundantly clear that the rash decisions of the character is the basic story device by which the conflict is ultimately created and the real protagonist of the story (i.e. Caesar) is moved further along in his development.  For that purpose, it works...  My complaint in that light becomes a minor niggle.  I just wish they had been more "correct" about it.  Like I mentioned with the case of driving clinical trials at the beginning of the movie, you could have spun the same basic idea with a more real-world framing.  Unfortunately, the classical argument against this is that the layman doesn't really have even a cursory understanding of the process here, and so trying to frame the vehicle of change within the confines of that real process is going to be confusing for the average Joe watching it in the theater...  and trying to explain it properly would just make the movie too long.  But my counterpoint to that is simply this -- If people don't understand the reality of how this process works, how are you helping anything by continuing to keep them in the dark?  It's not difficult to have added a little modifier to a sentence like "we only need one to persuade the investors."

Most intelligent people would know better than to presume that what you see in the movies has anything to do with reality, so I doubt they would take it that seriously.  Problem is that the key word is "intelligent."  When you're in a country where 40% of the population think the Earth is 6000 years old and that death is the result of being fooled by a talking snake into seeking out knowledge...  it's a little difficult to think that "intelligent" is a common trait.