Is the animal behaviour in Rise of the Planet of the Apes true to life, or are the filmmakers just monkeying around? Mike Reid, a 35-year-old PhD candidate at the University of Toronto Scarborough campus who studies orangutans, did some consulting work on the film. He went bananas for it (we couldn’t resist). But, he says, there’s also an important message there amidst all the summer silliness.
What consulting work did you do on the film? Was it the apes-fighting-in-the-streets part?
No. As they were getting ready to start shooting, they had me in for a half day to talk about ape behaviour.
What sort of things did they want to know?
Just how apes would behave in certain circumstances. General stuff about apes in terms of intelligence, stuff like personalities.
Would you ever take an ape home to live with you, like James Franco does in the movie?
To my house now? No, I would not take an ape home. They’re very cute when they’re small, but they grow very rapidly, and by the time they reach a few years of age, they’re strong enough to give an adult human a run for their money, for sure.
What was your favourite part of the movie?
It was when Caesar [the chimp]and Maurice, the orangutan, are sitting up on the rocks looking out over everyone and they start talking to each other in sign language and have quite an in-depth conversation.
Not including animals treated with super-drugs, can apes develop a wide vocabulary to sign with?
Absolutely. It’s been kind of controversial over the years. But there have been a number of projects. Project Washoe has been going on for years, and Washoe [a chimpanzee]apparently had quite a large vocabulary and has passed it on to her son. There’s Koko, of course, the gorilla. And there’s Kanzi, the bonobo.
What ape research is currently under way that will inadvertently spell the end of humankind?
That I don’t know. I don’t think there is too much.
In the movie, James Franco’s character is trying to develop a cure for Alzheimer’s disease that he’s testing on apes. Are apes still used to test drugs?
I’m not sure how much of it happens any more. The hepatitis B vaccine originated from trials on chimps. There’s an organization called the Fauna Foundation out of Montreal that is home to retired lab chimps. A lot of their chimps have hepatitis B from the trial days and HIV.
There’s a part in the movie where Caesar is looking out the window and sees kids riding bikes. Then he sneaks out to try it himself. Would apes really want to ride bikes?
Apes are very playful at a young age. I don’t know if they’d necessarily want to ride the bike. That would have to be something taught to them. But they’d be curious. It’s part of being a kid. Like us, the kids are a lot more playful than the adults.
Did you find it odd to be watching a battle of apes versus humans and find yourself cheering for team ape? It’s rare to watch a movie where humans are pitted against anything, and we cheer for the non-human side.
I think it’s good, and it’s something people should remember, because right now in the real world man is winning that battle. This movie may get people thinking. All these apes are endangered or highly endangered, depending on which ones. The question of whether they could really take over the world is probably a big no because there’s not enough of them. We’ve just done such a good job decimating them.
Is that mostly because of loss of habitat?
Loss of habitat is a huge factor, but there’s the big three: loss of habitat, hunting and disease. They vary in different places. Bush-meat hunting and disease have played a huge role in decimating African apes. And then with orangutans it’s the palm-oil plantations. Indonesia and Malaysia produce around 80 per cent of the world’s palm oil, and palm oil right now is probably the biggest threat to orangutan survival.
As someone who has made a career out of working with these animals, what did you really like about the movie, and what, if anything, did you really not like about the movie?
I really liked that the apes were portrayed as being not dangerous to humans until humans really messed with them. It wasn’t like they were provoking or just attacking for no reason. I also liked the bonds you could see between the animals, and the animals and people. Apes do form hugely strong bonds. What didn’t I like about it? Honestly, I was pretty wowed by the whole thing.