Dawn of the Age of Spectacular Performance Capture

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Good science fiction stories offer one an opportunity to escape to fantastical worlds. Great science fiction goes a step further: it brings up philosophical issues, questions human nature and societal constructs. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes certainly falls into the latter category. It is a film deserving of the “blockbuster” status because it not only has a deeply compelling narrative, but immerses audiences in captivating performances, breathtaking scenery and masterful use of new cinematic technologies to bring a screenplay that’s rich with layered meanings to life.

I haven’t watched the original “Planet of the Apes” films, so my review won’t be comparative. Instead, I approached this film as a continuation of “Rise”, and as one of the tentpole action films of mid-2014. “Dawn” is so good that I actually watched it twice – in both 2D and 3D.

Director Matt Reeves does a sterling job of balancing intense, emotional scenes with Caesar and his brethren of apes, and explosive action sequences between apes and humans. This is the kind of pacing and delivery that so many sci-fi films of late are lacking – here’s hoping this film serves as a guide on how to make a good, well-rounded picture. Ape society, led by Caesar and now thriving 10 years after the events of “Rise”, comes across as a sort of parallel to (early) human society – one that is built on the foundations of fear-induced leadership to some extent. This becomes increasingly apparent as the film progresses and one of the two primary villains, Koba, wins over the apes. Parallels can again be drawn between Caesar and his son, Blue Eyes, and Malcolm and his son – this suggestion of similarity between both species brings heart to the story and adds an appreciated dimension to both Caesar and Malcolm, the two protagonists of their respective species.

The villains of “Dawn” are well crafted. We can empathise with both Dreyfus (the human villain played by the always brilliant Gary Oldman) and Koba (the rogue ape that turns on Caesar). This is a mark of good screenwriting:  both ape and human villains have justifiable reasons for their respective actions, and if one were in their place, one could indeed see themselves acting similarly. Both parties are operating inherently on fear, and on trying to preserve their respective species. This is where the philosophical implications arise: can two dominant, intelligent species co-exist? This is explored to an extent, but along with the entire plot, sets up the answer to be determined in the planned sequel to be directed by Reeves with a release in July 2016.

Now, intrinsic to the sci-fi genre is the use of high-end cinematic technology to create such immersive experiences. And in “Dawn”, the true star is the spectacular use of performance capture. Watch the video below to see how not only body motion, but intricate facial expressions were captured and superimposed onto the ape CG models.

Andy Serkis is a veritable legend when it comes to performance capture, cementing his role as the leader in this realm with his breakout role as Gollum in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. In “Dawn”, he brings Caesar to life, creating the most compelling digital character I’ve ever seen. Watching this film in 3D with Dolby Atmos sound is an experience unlike any other; the Atmos soundscape draws you in to the auditory world, and the 3D used in this film is some of the best in an otherwise contentious aspect of modern blockbuster cinema. It felt like I was right there next to Caesar and Malcolm, right there in dystopian San Francisco witnessing the battle for the fittest species.

Michael Giacchino adds to the film’s overall impression with a great musical score that is equal parts nostalgic – the high notes of energetic flutes mixed with thunderous brass and strings, and powerful timpani – and dynamic, creating a strong soundscape that accentuates the drama unfolding onscreen.

The future of this rebooted Apes franchise should, in my opinion, be the arc of Caesar – thus, there should be a new human cast in the next film, so that we see how Caesar’s interactions with various humans affects his judgement as the battle for the Planet of the Apes reaches its high point. Having said that, it would still be nice to have James Franco return, at least briefly, and meet Caesar. That would be another poignant ape/human interaction that would add immense tension to the impending battle.

Should you see this movie? Well, let me put it this way: apes on horseback, with machine guns, riding through flames. Your argument is invalid. Go and see this. Now.

2014 in Film

It’s a new year, and a new set of exciting films are waiting in the wings. Keeping in tradition, here’s my pick of films to watch in 2014.

This year is going to be an epic one for cinema, from sequels to franchise reboots, to the return of some old favourites (I’m looking at you, The Hobbit: There and Back Again and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1). Release dates provided are international ones, but since Ster-Kinekor has upgraded to a full digital cinema system, they’ve said that we in South Africa should be getting these releases parallel to international dates. Let’s hope that remains true!

Without further ado, I give you 2014 in Film:

Films marked with an asterisk (*) are my must-see most anticipated picks.

  • I, Frankenstein [24 January] – a retake on the chilling horror story, starring Aaron Eckart and Bill Nighy.
  • The Lego Movie [7 February] – Lego Batman on an adventure. ’nuff said.
  • 300: Rise of an Empire [7 March] – Zack Snyder produces this follow-up that takes place before, during and after the events of 300.
  • * Noah [28 March] – Darren Aronofsky, he of the famed psychologically-driven character films, directs this Biblical interpretation starring a star-filled cast including Russel Crowe and Emma Watson.
  • Captain America: The Winter Soldier [4 April] – Steve Rogers and the Black Widow team up to take on a mystery that may endanger the entire world. Set two years after The Avengers, the duo soon encounter a powerful adversary – the Winter Soldier.
  • * Transcendence [18 April] – Wally Pfister, longtime cinematographer for Christopher Nolan, makes his directorial debut in this sci-fi thriller starring Johnny Depp, and Morgan Freeman. The story is very compelling: Dr Will Caster strives to create a machine that possesses sentience and collective intelligence. Like any good sci-fi film that doubles as a “thinking man’s action movie” (á la The Matrix), many philosophical implications and questions shall inevitably be brought up when discussing this film. One of my highly anticipated picks for the year.
  • Amazing Spider-Man 2 [2 May] – Eduardo Saverin – I mean, Andrew Garfield – is back as Spidey, shootin’ webs and takin’ names. The trailer hints at the possibility of a Marvel villain team-up movie following this. Looks really good too.
  • Godzilla [16 May] – the kaiju to end all kaijus is back in all its 21st Century CGI 3D glory. It stars Bryan Cranston and Ken Watanabe.
  • * X-Men: Days of Future Past [23 May] – The first trailer looks insanely epic. A time-travel story arc that brings the characters of the original and new X-Men movies together for the first time, this one stars Jennifer Lawrence, The Wolverine (aka Hugh Jackman), Michael Fassbender, Ellen Page, Sir Ian McKellen and most of Hollywood’s other A-listers.
  • 22 Jump Street [13 June] – Jencko and Schmidt are back, this time going undercover in college. I loved the first movie, and this one promises to continue that fun. Plus, you can’t go wrong with Jonah Hill in comedy.
  • Dawn of the Planet of the Apes [11 July] – the apes are rising against man. Will be interesting to see how they play the sympathies here. Enjoyed the first one, and looking forward to more. Starring motion capture expert Andy Serkis (aka Gollum) and Gary Oldman.
  • * Jupiter Ascending [18 July] – Mila Kunis stars in this sci-fi film by the inimitable Wachowskis (of Matrix and V for Vendetta fame). Jupiter is an unlikely hero who must fight against the Queen of the Universe to claim her birthright as the universe’s next leader. Also, did I mention Mila Kunis is in this? 😛
  • Guardians of the Galaxy [1 August] – Marvel’s Phase Two is wrapping up, and GOTG starts taking us intergalactic. With characters like Rocket Racoon (played by Bradley Cooper of all people), you know this is going to be a riot – of laughs, action, and more CGI than your brain can even comprehend. Sounds fun.
  • * Sin City: A Dame to Kill For [22 August] – Frank Millar and Robert Rodriguez direct this much-anticipated sequel. It packs an ensemble cast including Jessica Alba, Mickey Rourke, Bruce Willis, Eva Green and Joseph Gorden-Levitt.
  • Jane Got a Gun [29 August] – Natalie Portman is Jane, a good girl married to one of the worst baddies in town. She decides to take matters into her own hands when her husband returns home with eight bullets in his back. A classic western movie starring Natalie Portman – what more is there to say?
  • * Interstellar [7 November] – Christopher. Freaking. Nolan. One of my favourite directors returns. This time, it’s a haunting sci-fi tale: a wormhole is discovered that can connect widely separate regions of spacetime… and a team of explorers embarks on the greatest voyage of mankind. According to The Hollywood Reporter: “The plot is beleived to involve time travel and alternate dimensions.” The teaser trailer is chilling, and builds intense expectations for a Nolan movie. He’s teaming up with his brother Jonathan Nolan on this – much like when they worked on Memento together. It has the complete Chris Nolan package: Hans Zimmer music, brilliant actors like Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Matthew McConaughey. And of course, it includes a dash of Michael Caine to round it all out. This one’s going to be epic indeed – it’s being filmed with a combination of anamorphic 35mm film and IMAX photography.
  • * The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 [21 November] – It started with a spark in Catching Fire, and now the rebellion is searing into a blaze with Mockingkay Part 1. Jennifer Lawrence stars as Katniss Everdeen as she prepares to take on the Capitol – but not before discovering some harrowing secrets buried (Hunger Games fans – excuse the expression :P). If it’s anything like Catching Fire, I’m certain this one’s going to be another blockbuster. Julianne Moore also enters the franchise as Coin with this, so they’re certainly taking things up a notch.
  • * The Hobbit: There and Back Again [17 December] – Bilbo and the band of dwarves finally made it to the Lonely Mountain in Desolation of Smaug. But that film had one of the best cliffhangers I’ve ever seen, and it only builds up the expectations and anticipation for this final instalment in Peter Jackson’s prequel trilogy (yes, there, I said it like it is). This one will definitely include the Battle of the Five Armies – and the tragic consequences of it. We’ll get to see more of the glorious Smaug. And it’ll be interesting to see where they go with the Tauriel-Kili-Legolas triangle (Tauriel was a new character introduced by the filmmakers, played by the brilliant Evangeline Lily). It’ll certainly take on a darker theme as we slowly transition into Lord of the Rings territory. What I’m most looking forward to in this one: Gollum! Missed that guy in the second film. Let’s hope he returns. PJ has proven himself to be capable of interpreting the mighty Tolkien’s work, so let’s hope he manages to stand on his own with this third movie that will indeed have to draw on additional materials, given that the story arc of The Hobbit begins to dwindle now that we’re onto film three.

So there you have it: the movies I’m looking forward to watching this year. Be sure to visit Pixelated Thinking to read my reviews and thoughts on some of them. Follow me on Twitter to get the latest, too: twitter.com/RahulDowlath