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.

The Drifter

This is a new short story I’ve been working on. It diverges from my usual fiction writing style and you can perhaps categorise it as a noir-sci-fi-fantasy-thing. The idea of this singular figure drifting across a wasteland has been playing in my mind for some time, and I thought it would be interesting to frame it in some sort of narrative. You can read more of my thoughts on writing this, and why I consider it a threshold between my first manuscript and the new novel I’m about to embark on, at this link here. Enjoy.

The Drifter

The Drifter had walked these roads before. He had been subjected to this hell of placelessness, namelessness, facelessness… he moved like a dark shadow across the grey landscape, gliding like a phantom through these parts.

The towns he passed looked the same: single roads, dusty streets, broken windows in falling-down buildings. An empty existence. All because of the One.

The One who had started it all.

The One who he tried to stop.

The One for whom defeat was never a word.

The One.

A shiver crept through the Drifter’s thin frame, rattling his very being. He stopped.

The town lay before him, just like the countless others he’d experienced.

But there was something different about this one… something he couldn’t quite place just yet.

A single street, flanked by crumbling structures.

Dust billowing in the afternoon gust, the buildings bathed in dusk’s golden light.

*

First there were the glitches. The tiny fragmentations of reality, hinted by conspicuous bursts of a shimmering haze. Almost like a heat haze. But the Drifter knew otherwise. He knew this wasn’t some thermodynamic phenomenon.

Over the year, the fragmentations grew in frequency, and reality started to crumble piece by piece around him.

Until…

Until there was nothing. Emptiness. Darkness.

That was the world he lived in now. That was the world that the Spectre had crafted, and that was the world he was seeing.

The Drifter knew this was unnatural. That no human was meant to see these things. But once that first glimpse of nothingness caught his vision, he couldn’t see anything the same again.

He was forever haunted, a phantom coasting these desolate lands.

*

The bar was just like any other he had been in, in countless towns in countless barren lands. Dust was suspended in the air, dust caked the empty tables. Desolation. Utter nothingness: the Spectre’s spell cast over these lands.

He walked slowly into the dimly lit room. Silence pressed against this hollow chamber. He sat himself at the long wooden bar that stretched across one end of the place. Before him were dirty tumblers and drink taps that hadn’t been used for years.

The place seemed to be devoid of life – not unlike the hundreds of towns he had visited before this one. Yet the Drifter knew this was it; this would be the end of his journey.

He sat hunched over the bar, his face cast in half-shadow.

And waited.

Sure enough, there came the distant sound of footsteps on beaten-up wooden flooring. Life, finally.

The Drifter felt the presence before he saw the being. As expected.

The Drifter smelled the odour before he saw the creature. As expected.

The Drifter looked up, and stared into the grey eyes. Grey: as expected.

This was Him. The One. The Spectre.

Finally.

As expected.

*

He learned of the Spectre shortly after the glitches. It was apparent that the two were inextricably linked; the Spectre was the one who caused the glitches. The Spectre created them.

One night, whilst still a part of the fragile world that was slowly crumbling around him, the Drifter struggled to rest, his mind constantly on the glitches that were consuming him.

The glitches… The strange force that was tearing apart his reality. That was when the Spectre appeared: a gust of wind, a sort of vacuum as air displaced in an irregular pattern, and the mysterious aura of some ancient entity descending upon the space.

Terror gripped him as witnessed the frightening sight: a being not from this world, a being he knew instantly to be connected to the phenomena he had just experienced.

It was a dark entity, a form that constantly shifted its shape, never the same thing with each passing second. Its voice spoke not from a mouth , but through the very air… It spoke from within the Drifter’s very mind.

“You have been chosen…” it said. “You have been chosen…”

Eyes… Red, bright, piercing, suddenly materialised from the shapeless mass hovering before him. They tore into his mind, as if searing the message into his brain.

And at once, just as suddenly as it had begun, the Spectre disappeared.

From that point onward, the Drifter was born: not physically, but in a mental state: he would forever be condemned to a life of rootlessness, never able to stay in one place. All because the Spectre had chosen him to bear witness to the true reality.

He would forever walk these plains, barren and desolate, searching for some wisp of that past, veiled vision that could validate his existence and lift him from this haunting spell. 

That blurred existence that had once been his was brighter than this discordant reality.

*

“What will it be?” the voice belonging to the grey eyes asked.

It was a provocation, not a question. The words were not asking, they were tempting… taunting the Drifter’s predicament.

The Drifter sighed.

“An end would be nice,” he replied quietly.

The room suddenly chilled. Whatever light permeated the space extinguished itself at once. Cold pierced the Drifter’s back like shards of ice puncturing his skin. He screamed out. The barman had disappeared… and then the voice spoke from within his skull.

“An end? That’s what your want, then?”

A swirl of black smoke twisted its way around the room, like a tornado preparing its onslaught. It circled the Drifter, who was now standing in the centre of the dusty barroom. He stood as still as possible, a statue immune to the fear the Spectre was trying to conjure.

He had failed to fight this entity once. He would never allow himself to do so again.

Reaching into the depths of his jackets, he withdrew a slender object: it glowed silver in the darkness. The swirling mist slowed, then withdrew into itself, the Spectre taking on a shimmering, shifting form, both a defined shape and yet still incomprehensible.

The two red, piercing eyes suddenly looked… afraid.

The Drifter allowed himself a slight smile.

In a single move that he had seen played out in his mind countless times through countless landscapes of endless walking, the Drifter thrust the blade into the mist that was the Spectre. The blade went straight through, but the shriek from the thing it pierced was deafening.

The Spectre’s form became solid, then vapour, then solid again… each time the leathery skin cracking, a horrible red liquid oozing from the cracks and then suddenly disappearing as it changed its state of matter. Finally, it turned to smoke, and gently drifted off in the breeze that crept into the barroom. The darkness went with the Spectre, and the Drifter found himself standing with his arm still thrusting the blade into empty air.

It was done. He was free.

So why did it feel like he was still in chains?

*

The road stretched on to infinity. Flat land flanked it. The Drifter stood in the middle, looking out at the endless expanse of asphalt.

The Spectre was dead. He survived. But this was his only existence – the only thing he knew now. The thing that had silently tortured him for so long, now haunted him. 

The promise of light rested just beyond the horizon…

So the Drifter began his journey once more.

©2014 Rahul Dowlath

“The Drifter” – Preview

After a considerable hiatus from publishing short stories on Pixelated Thinking (although I did continue to write a few very short ones that remain unpublished), I’ve finally decided to release a new one (the last short story I published here was The Walker in 2011). This is more of an experimental piece than anything. Since the recent few months have had me preoccupied with completing my first manuscript of a sci-fi thriller I’ve been developing over a few years now, it was nice to venture away from that world and those characters with this more abstract project. Also, I needed something new to write to distance me from that first draft that I know is going to need an insane amount of work to rewrite.

This story is called The Drifter. It’s an experiment into a darker-tinged, fantasy-sci-fi dystopian world, something I haven’t actually written before. I think it serves as a nice threshold between my first 45 000+ word manuscript that’s occupied my mind for years now, and a new crime/noir/thriller drama I’m in the early stages of developing into a novel.

Here’s a preview of The Drifter. The story is complete, by the way, and sits hidden away on my MacBook’s harddrive. I will release the full 1000+word story soon, so look out for it on this blog and @RahulDowlath.

*

THE DRIFTER (a preview)

The Drifter had walked these roads before. He had been subjected to this hell of placelessness, namelessness, facelessness… he moved like a dark shadow across the grey landscape, gliding like a phantom through these parts.

The towns he passed looked the same: single roads, dusty streets, broken windows in falling-down buildings. An empty existence. All because of the One.

The One who had started it all.

The One who he tried to stop.

The One for whom defeat was never a word.

The One.

A shiver crept through the Drifter’s thin frame, rattling his very being. He stopped.

The town lay before him, just like the countless others he’d experienced.

But there was something different about this one… something he couldn’t quite place just yet.

A single street, flanked by crumbling structures.

Dust billowing in the afternoon gust, the buildings bathed in dusk’s golden light.

*

Look out for the full version of The Drifter, coming soon to Pixelated Thinking.