Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Fall of Humanity: Apes, Robots, and the End of the World

Apocalyptic movies about technological advances can teach us about human nature.
 by Curtis Betz

Last week I attempted a review of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes while medicated and suffering from the flu. Although it was an accurate review, I was barely able to address the real issues imbedded in this film due to my brain swimming around in a cocktail of illness and medications. This week, I want to dig a little deeper and share some of the lessons that we as a species can learn from those apes and address some of the recurring issues that appear in similar films.

Does everyone remember the story of Icarus? Well, just in case you don't, the story goes that Icarus was the son of a great inventor who created a pair of wings with feathers glued to some wood with wax. Icarus tested the wings out and as he got more comfortable with flying, he got more arrogant and flew higher and higher. Eventually, he got too close to the sun and the heat melted the wax. The wings fell apart and Icarus came to a gruesome end with a “crash” course in gravity. It’s a story that has been told since the time of the ancient Greeks that reminds us to stay humble. Dante’s “The Divine Comedy” tells the tale of how the Devil’s pride caused him to rebel against God and as punishment was cast down to Hell with all of the rebellious angels. The Titanic was the biggest ship ever built and her creators tempted the universe by claiming she was unsinkable. We all know how that ended. My point is that throughout the ages, people have told and retold stories warning against becoming too proud. We are told all of our lives not to tempt fate and to stay humble. Hollywood has taken these warnings to the logical extreme in apocalypse movies such as the Planet of the Apes franchise, Terminator, and countless zombie movies, just to name a few.

The reboot of the Planet of the Apes franchise tells the story of a pharmaceutical company that is developing a cure for Alzheimer’s and tests it’s formulas on apes. Eventually one of the drugs gives an ape named Ceaser super-intelligence. Over the course of the first film, all apes gain that same level of intelligence and humans get pushed to number two on the list of animals that run the world. It’s just the latest in a series of retellings of the classic hubris warning story. The scientists developing the Alzheimer’s cure tampered with genetics, a force they should not attempt to control, and in the end it backfires and leads to the end of the world. Just like Icarus, they got cocky and flew too high, resulting in a phenomenal spiral into oblivion.

The Terminator movies tell the same story. Skynet was designed by the military as a defense network, but it gained sentience and destroyed the human race. I always wondered why someone would create something that could potentially destroy all of humanity like that and the only answer that makes any sort of sense is “because we can”. The movies suggest that when you attempt to play God, there are inevitable negative consequences.

A lot of zombie movies attribute the end of the world to either a virus of unknown origin or, in the case of I am Legend and the Resident Evil movies, a pharmaceutical side effect. I am Legend states that the cause of the apocalypse was a cancer cure that went haywire and either killed everyone or turned them into cannibalistic monsters that burn in the sunlight. Resident Evil blames the Umbrella Corporation for releasing a virus on Raccoon City that eventually destroyed the world. In both of these cases, science was tampering with things that they didn’t fully understand and it bit them in the butt (literally, probably). The most common cause for a zombie outbreak is an unidentified virus, probably a mutation of the flu or something along those lines. Most zombie movies keep it pretty vague.

However, how can we not assume that Z-Day or any of the disaster situations above aren’t a cosmic punishment for everything we as humans have done? Technological advances have been increasing exponentially. We communicate around the world in an instant using satellites in space from the palms of our hands. We learned to create life decades ago; does everyone remember that sheep that got cloned? We discovered water on Mars. These all seem to be examples of the technological hubris that Hollywood has been trying to warn us about for decades. According to the traditional blockbuster script, an apocalypse is sure to follow.

While these issues might seem fantastical, there are also aspects of technology which can and do lead to very negative, immediate consequences. Technology makes it possible for us to have more destructive behaviours such as deadlier wars, horrific terrorism, and widespread genocide. These destructive behaviours, and the use of cultural and technological arrogance in their execution, might give more weight to the myth of Icarus and more grounding for the potential horrors which arrogance can lead to.

I know that all this seems very depressing and it certainly is. It’s very dark when you look at the world through this kind of perspective. However, it’s best not to dwell on the negatives. Perhaps take a moment or two to ponder the repercussions next time you feel that tickle of arrogance in the back of your mind and humble yourself before things turn sideways in your world. Other than that, go outside and enjoy the sunshine. Take your kids in your arms and tell them that you love them. Call your mother and thank her for everything she did for you when you were a child. Give an extra Rand or two next the time you tip someone. Enjoy life to its fullest because it’s probably only a matter of time before Google becomes sentient and brings about the end of the world.