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The Frontiers of Empathy: One Reason Why I Love Science Fiction

In Movies, Science Fiction on October 24, 2011 at 10:44 am

One more thing relating to Rise of the Planet of the Apes, then I swear I have something positive and interesting to say about Occupy Portland. Really. I have not forgotten about that.

At this point, George Lucas has lost nearly all of his credibility as a creator of science fiction. Anymore, he’s thought of as one who despoils wonder as opposed to creating it. I’ve got plenty of antipathy towards Star Wars for lots of reasons, but the thing that made me personally stop looking up to George Lucas as a science fiction creator came just after my senior year of college.

I came home, and a roommate and several of his friends were watching Attack of the Clones. For whatever reason, they had decided to watch it with the commentary on, and Lucas was talking away about whatever happened to be in the frame at that moment. At the point where I came in and idly watched it with them, R2-D2 was flying through a large industrial facility and being pursued by several insect-like aliens called Genosians. Giant gears, conveyor belts, robotic arms, and other factory bits swooped by as R2-D2 evaded his pursuers. On the commentary Lucas said of the Genosians that they were “basically giant mosquitoes.” One of the flying aliens got stuck in some gears or other piece of machinery, and was crunched to death. The scene was played for slapstick-y laughs, and we were supposed to root for R2, who was suddenly able to fly for some reason.

I do not have a philosophical opposition to comic violence, animated mayhem, or laughing at fictional deaths. However, in that moment, I did find Lucas’ attitude towards his alien creations to be flippant and almost rather offensive. I found it astounding that he could imagine the Genosians intelligent enough to create modern industry, but not deserving of empathy or consideration when it came to feeding them into machinery. Certainly Lucas wouldn’t have sent a human careening into gears as a punchline, or called homo sapiens “basically naked monkeys.”

I love science fiction not just because it’s a genre filled with lasers and spaceships (though there is that) but also because it, more than any other form of genre fiction, can challenge and bolster our sense of empathy towards our fellow beings. Rise of the Planet of the Apes was excellent in that the filmmakers had the confidence to get the audience to empathize with a nonhuman protagonist, and a nonhuman cast of supporting characters. While James Franco might have gotten top billing, the real star of the film is Caesar, the CGI ape whose body language and facial expressions were taken from Andy Serkis. Yes, Franco does a fine enough job of being a likable handsome scientist, but the character development that the audience is most concerned with throughout the film belongs to an intelligent animal who says almost nothing. Caesar’s mind, body, and point of view are all unlike ours, yet I found myself deeply interested in the story and emotional life of an intelligent ape, and expanding my definition of who and what I considered a fellow being.

Science fiction does this all of the time. One of the reasons why I maintain that Star Trek will always be superior to Star Wars is that, as cheesy and indulgent as Trek might get it retains a more expansive heart and mind. Spock, Worf, and Data are all nonhuman, yet are among the most beloved characters of the series. They all, for different reasons, have bodies, minds, and emotional lives that our different from our own, yet we are asked to value them as people. What’s more, their different points of view are presented as being inherently valuable, rather than just curiosities. Kirk may disagree with Spock frequently, but he gives the Vulcan his highest regard because he knows that a point of view different from his is often a valuable thing.

Star Wars did have R2 and Chewbacca, but too often they were played only for laughs and never given stories of their own. What’s more, several of the aliens are presented first and foremost as set-dressing. What, after all, does Nien Nunb ever actually do? The emotions that we are most often asked to feel regarding Star Wars’ aliens is nearly always related to their anatomy. We feel disgust at Jabba’s obesity, are impressed with Chewbacca’s strength, and look around with unease at the denizens of the Mos Eisley cantina, a hive of scum and villainy. Seldom are the aliens the source of tragedy, drama, or pathos.

All of our investment and empathy is with Luke, Han, and Leia. Almost never are we asked to reach out in any challenging way to a character not like ourselves. The one major exception is Yoda. Luke must accept him as a Jedi master in the exact same scene that the audience must accept him as something other than comic relief. If George Lucas could have approached all of his aliens with the same humanity that he approached Yoda, I would probably like Star Wars a whole lot more.

Watching Rise of the Planet of the Apes the other night, I was reminded of the heart and mind of science fiction that has continually inspired me to love things like Star Trek, the robot stories of Isaac Asimov, and the wonderfully silent apocalyptic landscapes of WALL-E. Being able to journey to space, or the future, or alternate dimensions is all well and good, but SF, when it has the courage and confidence of its convictions, can also allow us to feel that the Other is not so other, and that even though their communications, trappings, and biology (or lack thereof) may be incomprehensible to us. We must still engage with them as full-fledged players within a drama, and for that time their reality is equal to that of any human character on the page or on the screen.

Going home from Rise of the Planet of the Apes, I started thinking about real chimps. In particular, I remembered a This American Life story about a chimp who was raised by humans and then had to integrate herself with chimpanzees. I wondered about the real scientists who had to work with animals that very nearly are intelligent, do form emotional connections with lab workers, and are capable of self-recognition. The chimp who played Cheetah, Tarzan’s companion, apparently enjoyed watching his old movies and could recognize himself on screen. I thought about what it would be like to actually work with animals like that, and what the ethical obligations would be. I don’t spend a whole lot of time thinking about animal rights or issues at all- but that night it was on my mind unavoidably.

It is a wonderful thing that science fiction can do that to us. It can inspire our minds and emotions to suddenly engage in real world issues relating to science, ethics, or philosophy. And it can do so because, at the best of times, it expands our minds rather than merely inflames our emotions, and lets us be magnanimous with our empathy. I suddenly cared about chimps because I cared about Caesar.

If we can care about the alien, the robot, the mutant, or the genetically altered intelligent animal, then we can surely experience empathy towards another human being whose national origin, religion, or ideology is different than ours. If we can find ourselves engaged with the issues of, say, apes, then we can find ourselves engaged with the issues that are of concern to our real-life neighbors. That may sound idealistic, and it is. However, I believe in the power of fiction, and know that it can do much more than simply entertain.

  1. […] out of The Artist, I immediately thought of Wall-E and Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Neither are silent movies in that they have title cards and whatnot, but, like The Artist, both […]

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