"Rise of the Planet of the Apes"

Hannah Little 4 October 2011

Tight-lipped: details from the film's promo poster

The scriptwriters of this installment of the film franchise have done their research

Editor’s note: This review contains mild spoilers.

As someone who has dedicated quite a lot of time to reading about the linguistic abilities of apes, I didn't enter the cinema to see “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” hoping for viable or realistic linguistic science. After all, we've all seen the original films and the apes talk just as humans do. It shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone that this would never happen in the real world, and this is not just because of the cognitive abilities of apes, but also because of the vocal tract of apes. That is to say that no matter how intelligent an ape is, it will not be possible for that ape to create the sounds of English as the physical ability simply isn't there.

This physical inability stems from the fact that apes do not have a lowered larynx, as humans have, and therefore they do not have the same free movement in their tongues. They are capable of moving their tongues backwards and forwards but not up and down with as much ease as humans. They also do not have the freedom to close their nasal tracts in order to allow a build-up of pressure in the mouth, which allows humans to create sounds which use a quick release of air including plosives such as p, b, t, d, g and k.

It is because of these physical constraints that language-trained apes cannot use any form of spoken language and instead are taught using gesture or pictograms. It is in this respect that this new film pleasantly surprised me. Far-fetched science fiction aside (including a serum which, when given to apes, boosts cognitive ability), there was a surprising amount of evidence that the scriptwriters of this installment of the film franchise had done their research.

The scientist protagonist, Will (James Franco), takes home a young ape, Caesar (an enhanced Andy Serkis), who has inherited advanced cognitive abilities from his mother. The ape, after spending some time training, seems to understand spoken English, but uses sign language when communicating himself. This is consistent with how language-trained apes in the real world behave, as there is some evidence to suggest they can understand instructions in spoken English. But they have to resort to using gesture or pictograms when communicating themselves because of the physical inability to produce the sounds of English. In the research facility where Caesar is born there is also a set of pictograms (as used by the famous Banobo ape Kanzi) on the wall.

This evidence that the scriptwriters had done their research made it all the more disastrous when, literally two minutes before the end of the film, Caesar speaks. Luckily he doesn't use any plosives (I really hope this was intentional). I don't think I would have been bothered had the film remained consistently ignorant of the physical linguistic abilities of apes or consistently sensitive to them, but this inconsistency really annoyed me.

Another amazing linguistic inconsistency in this film resided in Tom Felton's American accent. In the famous line harking back to the old films, “Get your stinking paw off me, you damned dirty ape,” Felton inserts an 'r' after ‘paw’ as an American would pronounce 'pour'.

I'm sure my linguist's perspective of this film made for a truly unique viewing experience that I'm glad I can share with you, but my final word is to reassure you that my qualms don't detract from it being a largely entertaining, thought-provoking and action-filled movie.