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Movie Review: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

I have a soft spot in my heart for what I and others call ‘big idea’ science fiction. You see, sci-fi is not always whiz-bang laser fights and exotic, distant worlds. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a work of science fiction, as is Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park. Without aliens, particle beams, faster than light starships or time travel, I think some folks would pass over something like Dawn of the Planet of the Apes in the search for sci-fi. But trust me: this movie is science fiction, it’s ‘big idea’ science fiction, and it’s delivered blockbuster-style to a cinema near you.

Courtesy 20th Century Fox

Ten years after the so-called ‘simian flu’ engineered in Rise of the Planet of the Apes was unleashed on the world, humankind is all but wiped out. The apes that were granted intelligence by that same retrovirus, on the other hand, have flourished. The first to ‘awaken’, Caesar, has lead his fellow apes to a colony in which a code of conduct, a school, and an organized military have all been established. While hunting, those militaristic apes happen across a human. Tensions immediately flare, with one of the humans fascinated by the apes as the others gear up to defend themselves, and Caesar waiting to see if these humans are reasonable while his general, Koba, seethes with a desire to avenge himself upon his former captors.

So the big idea, here, is that not only humans have engineered their own end, but they have also uplifted their successors. In older movies set in the Planet of the Apes, it’s seemed that the apes are conquerors, brutally claiming territory once held by humans. However, Dawn smartly shows the apes simply moving in to occupy a role once held by humans: the top of the food chain, apex predators due to their intelligence. The natural world is clearly reclaiming itself from the ravages of mankind; we see it in the trees, the waters, and the streets of San Francisco. Mankind is already no longer the masters here; the planet belongs to the apes.

Courtesy 20th Century Fox
Two of a kind.

This is a world fully realized, one we can conceptualize and connect with even if it is unlike our own. Thankfully, the characters in that world are just as thought-provoking. Whereas some sci-fi lets the ideas take center stage while cardboard cutout characters act as ciphers for bigger themes, Rise gives us well-written ones that invite multiple perspectives on the world. As in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Caesar is our main protagonist, realized in breathtaking work done by Andy Serkis and an expert team of motion capture artists, who expresses himself eloquently and is a pensive, dedicated, and driven leader. He commands respect, both from his apes and the audience. Koba, Caesar’s vengeful general, is also incredibly compelling, surprising in his pathos and clearly showing that Caesar’s cunning is no accident. On the human side, Jason Clarke’s Malcolm serves quite adequately as Caesar’s counterpart; he is curious and diplomatic, opting to talk before he fights. Gary Oldman as Dreyfus is far more protective of the human survivors huddled together in San Francisco’s ruins, but his cagey nature and desperation are completely understandable. It’s the mark of good storytelling when you can see things from the perspective of each player, be the results of their actions positive or negative. Everybody has a personal agenda, and while neither apes nor humans have anything to gain from fighting, the more the tensions rise, the more a fight seems inevitable.

With all of these big ideas floating around, realized through very human and well-written characters, you may think that Dawn opts away from any of the whiz-bang action stuff I mentioned in the first paragraph. But it’s smarter than that. It’s smart enough to know that in the midst of all of the philosophy and commentary on human nature, it’s still a summer blockbuster and still a fun time at the movies. When fighting breaks out, the combat is energetic and imaginative. Action scenes are cleanly shot and some of the things we see are quite inventive. When you can say that the movie you saw about the sociological battle between our better natures and our desires for survival and vengeance also features a bonobo dual-wielding machine guns while on horseback, it’s safe to say you’re on to a winner.

Courtesy 20th Century Fox
Not even kidding.

I walked out of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes thinking about it in a way you wouldn’t think about Transformers: Age of Extinction. This movie is, as I’ve said, very smart. It never takes the audience for granted, delivering both satisfying action and thought-provoking characters and themes. It does not fall into the prequel trap of taking its outcomes for granted, either. I wasn’t sure how it was going to end. It kept me guessing and, by extension, on the edge of my seat. It has big fights and big set pieces to go with its big ideas, and it shows us just how powerful and exciting good science fiction can be when done right. It also makes its preceding entry, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, even better than it was by coherently continuing the story while expanding the world and deepening the ongoing themes. I am going to have to buy both of these films for repeat watching. They’re that good. You should definitely consider seeing Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Even if you’re not on board at first with some of the over-arching ideas, I will repeat: Bonobo on horseback with a machine gun in each hand.

Blood from Sisyphus

Courtesy floating robes
Courtesy Floating Robes

Lately, that feeling has come back. Every time I get that heavy, bulky, stinking boulder up to the top of the hill, it rolls back down on top of me. I think I’m overdue for a vacation. My family reunion starts tomorrow (and I will have posts ready, I swear!), so that will probably help, but right now I’m mired in a lot of things I’d rather not delve into in a general, scattershot-to-the-Internet basis.

So I will just say that getting my best work from me at a time like this is like getting blood from a stone. I’m just trying to boulder-roll my way through what’s in front of me to get to better things, and I know that such a bull-headed approach can lead to things appearing as not my best work. I’m trying to get past that, too. Maybe I’m working too hard, or maybe I’m overthinking things.

Either way, it’s been a time when I’ve been smacking my forehead against the wall between me and where I want to be, and I’m not stopping until either I or the wall gets destroyed.

And it’s not going to be me.

The Sith Have A Point

Courtesy LucasFilms

The X-Wing Miniatures Game by Fantasy Flight has been teasing me for a long time. I’ve tried to keep my attentions elsewhere, but with the excellent review over at Shut Up & Sit Down has nailed the coffin shut on my intentions. Soon, I will be picking up the Starter Set, and I have the feeling I will be fielding the Imperial forces. Despite the fact that we are intended to sympathize and root for the heroic underdog Rebellion, we have to remember that every villain from our perspective is the hero from theirs, and when you get right down to it, the Sith have a point.

The Jedi are held up as paragons of virtue, galactic peacekeepers devoid of emotional attachment and personal ambition. However, if you give them more than a cursory glance, you start to see leaks in this presentation. They say that ‘only a Sith deals in absolutes,’ yet they consider Sith to always be on the wrong side of a battle. Always. No exceptions. An absolute. Makes you think, doesn’t it? There’s also the fact that the Jedi Masters that we find ourselves keying into – Qui-Gon Jinn, Yoda, etc – are often seen as renegades or iconoclastic among other Jedi. Others attempt to adhere to their strict adherence to being emotionless icons of righteousness. Absolute ones at that.

The Sith seem to have a different approach. While many of them do pursue selfish ambitions that result in others getting hurt or the innocent getting suppressed, the general philosophy embraces the strength of independence, free thought, and ambition. It’s certainly true that this sort of thinking can lead to people going down darker paths. However, it can be argued that a path of righteousness can also lead to dark places. Not that Jedi would ever admit this. Sith strike me as more honest in retrospect; the Jedi have good intentions but their strictures can yield rigid minds devoid of mercy as much as they are of emotion. As brutal as some of them can be, they have a point – passion can be every bit as powerful as rigid adherence to strictures, and in some cases, the passionate path is preferable, and not necessarily easier.

For all of the flak Lucas deservedly gets for some of his ill-advised creative decisions, the universe he created is not devoid of merit, and this dichotomy is worth examination. Instead of the naked good/evil conflict we see all too often, in the right hands it can be a crucial examination of the debate between free thought and organized discipline.

It can also be a simple backdrop for laser swords and dogfights in space.

From The Vault: The “Real Game” Has Begun

Life’s upheaval shows no sign of really ending, but there are lulls in the quakes. In some of them I’ve started inching back towards Azeroth. I suspect I’ll still be doing a lot of the things listed below, so here’s my take on the end-game content in the game’s current iteration.


Courtesy IcyVeins and Blizzard Entertainment
A surprisingly provincial addition to a world full of dragons and wizards.

When I’ve played MMOs previously, especially World of Warcraft, the prevailing sentiment has been that ‘the real game begins’ at the maximum level a character can achieve. For the most part, this has applied to large-group raid or player-versus-player content. Not everybody is interested in such things, though. The question becomes, then, what does one do once their main character hits the ceiling of the maximum level?

There’s always the option of rolling another character, for certain, but I would argue that a good MMO provides a plethora of content for a player who’s struggled through the slow grind upwards. There was a part of me that was concerned when I approached the top level available as I worked my way through World of Warcraft’s new continent of Pandaria. However, when that bright light and familiar sound met me, I was in for a surprise.

Like many previous expansions, World of Warcraft’s newest areas feature multiple factions towards whom a player can endear themselves. They’re all over Pandaria, but unlike the forces featured in Cataclysm or Wrath of the Lich King, they’re not necessarily worried with getting your help to save the world. The Anglers are fascinated by the various kinds of fish you can find around Pandaria, the Order of the Cloud Serpent raises the continent’s unique breeds of dragons (and you can, too!), and the Tillers are farmers, plain & simple. I’ll get back to them in a moment.

Top level players have been queueing up to enter dungeons for a long time, but Pandaria also gives us scenarios to experience. These instances are smaller and more scripted, geared for 3 players instead of 5 and not necessarily requiring a specific team makeup (a tank will certainly help you, though). With many of the factions I mentioned, you can participate in daily quests ranging from slaying nasty critters to corralling lost yaks. These quests and instances yield plenty of gold to finance other endeavors, gear either through direct drops or special currency, and even reputation with the factions above. But not everything that you can do with your max-level character is so confrontational.

The Tillers allow you to start a farm of your very own. I’ve been told this portion of the game is lifted almost directly from the Harvest Moon games, based on the different crop conditions and finding gifts for fellow farmers. Either way, it feels to me like a lovely change from the usual grind of post top level gear gathering. It’s still a bit of a grind to get your farm to a point where you can grow materials you need for your professions, but considering the things you can do with the other crops in the meantime, it feels like less of a grind, and a player getting a positive feeling from an in-game experience is evidence of good mechanical design.

If you skipped a profession on your way up, or want to change from one to another, max level is great time to retread those steps a bit. Archaeology, in particular, is a neat secondary profession to explore at top levels. Few of the areas you’ll be digging in are actually dangerous to you, you pick up unique items, and it’s a skill that can be used for dailies in Pandaria. In fact, the Order of the Cloud Serpent has dailies that call upon your skills as a cook, medic, angler, and archaeologist. It pays to diversify your skills, after all!

And then there’s the Brawler’s Guild, which I haven’t even touched yet…

Of course, this could just be my feeling about reaching the current top level in World of Warcraft. I’m sure others are more interested in the raiding scene or jumping into the Arena to take on other players. While there will always be alts to level, the game clearly does not end when the levels do. A MMO worth its asking price should keep providing fresh, new content, and for my money, Mists of Pandaria is doing that pretty well for World of Warcraft.

500 Words on Setbacks

RetroFitness of East Norriton

Two mornings after my first trip to the gym in months, my body is still sore. In fact, my left calf muscle (the ‘gastrocnemius ‘ I believe) has a fresh pull in it. It was enough to keep me in bed for a time. So, instead, I’m packing my gym bag and I’m going after work.

I hate going to the gym at night. It’s usually more crowded, more loud, and it can be more difficult to access the equipment I need. The gym I currently attend has just the one squat rack, and if I am going to get back to where I was in terms of my fitness routine and set new goals, I need to get a better handle on my squats. It’s possible I hit the rack a bit too hard on Wednesday, so when I go back tonight, I’ll try to go a bit easier on myself.

We all experience setbacks. Plans get changed, if not thrown into upheaval, when the unexpected happens. We don’t always get all of the information, or process everything correctly, to set things out right the first time. Mistakes are made. Oversights occur. Gaps in knowledge appear and every skillset has some demonstrable weaknesses.

This isn’t something you should punish yourself over.

Life is hard enough without self-deprecation coming into the mix. While it’s important to be salient regarding our own flaws, lest we fall into the trap of thinking ourselves blameless for our plights, berating ourselves for inevitable setbacks is not as important as planning the means to overcome those obstacles. Let’s face it – the problem is still going to be there no matter how much you flog yourself over it. It isn’t going to go away just because you’re laying into yourself to a noticeable degree.

Take the time to note where things went wrong. Understand the causes for the setback. Make yourself aware of these things going forward, if you can, as it may prevent future problems. And deal with what’s in front of you. The words you don’t write because you’re too contrite or too tired will remain unwritten until you write them. There’s no achievement to unlock for feeling sorry for yourself. Forward is the only direction that really matters.

This is another case of me reminding myself of these things at the same time I’m communicating them to others. I can’t pretend to have any authority on this, or much of anything, and I certainly don’t consider myself a success story worth emulating. Still, I do know that I’ve had my share of setbacks, some even self-inflicted. I did manage to survive them, somehow. And on top of everything, there are more in my future. I know this for a fact. Because, last time I checked, I’m a human being. I’m going to fuck up at some point or another.

It doesn’t matter what my intentions were, or how I would have done things differently. What matters, and what always matters, is what will happen next.