Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Retrospective: Planet of the Apes (1968)

It's that time again! That's right, it's retrospectives time! The film franchise which we will be exploring this time is the venerable sci-fi series, Planet of the Apes (45 years old this year!). Unlike pretty much every other franchise I've explored in these retrospectives, the Planet of the Apes series has some fantastic films in its repertoire so these retrospectives should have much more positivity than, for example, The Howling did. Considering that pretty much every movie in the last 2 retrospective series sucked, it would be easy to think that I'm either a negative person and/or a stingy critic. Hopefully this series will inject some positivity into the retrospectives and change that perception. In any case, let's explore the Planet of the Apes then...

The 35th Anniversary Edition DVD cover - probably the only Planet of the Apes marketing which  makes an obvious effort not to spoil the twist.

Planet of the Apes was based on a French novel by Pierre Boulle (authour of The Bridge Over the River Kwai), La Plan├Ęte des singes. The rights to the novel were picked up by producer Arthur P. Jacobs, who spent quite some time pitching the film and trying to get a script written for it. Rod Sterling, creator of The Twilight Zone, wrote one of the scripts for the film which would have featured futuristic apes (much like in the novel). However, the most important addition that Sterling brought to the film was its famous twist ending (which was not present in the original novel). Later rewrites replaced all the dialogue, changed many character names and moved the setting to a more Victorian ape society, but the basic structure and the ending were all retained.

The film featured some fairly well-known actors in its principal parts. The most obvious superstar amongst the cast was Charlton Heston. Already famous for The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur, he had the star power and rugged looks to portray the "hero" of the film, George Taylor. Shakespearean actor Maurice Evans was cast as Dr. Zaius. Kim Hunter, who had won an Oscar for best supporting actress as Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire, was cast as Zira. The other fairly big name in the cast was Roddy McDowall, who played Cornelius. Of the original cast, McDowall was actually probably the most important, as he would go on to appear in the first 5 films in some capacity (but we'll get to that later of course). All of the main actors in the film do a good job - Evans really sells it as the villainous Dr. Zaius, making us really hate him for his hypocrisy. Cornelius and Zira are both quite good in their own right, although not always in the most obvious fashion. For example, you might notice that Cornelius and Zira twitch their noses when they're surprised or thinking - it's a small detail, but quite impressive that they'd throw in a subtle mannerism like that for their ape characters which go a long way to making them feel like legitimate characters. Heston sometimes gets some flak for hamming up his role in this film, but I think it really works to show the desperation and insanity of Taylor when he's in captivity... after all, he's stuck on a planet which is totally upside-down as far as he's concerned. On top of that, his character is mute for about half of the film, and he does a great job helping us sympathize with him in spite of that limitation. The last notable character is Nova, played by Linda Harrison. She's basically mute the whole time and so doesn't have much to work with, but she does her job well enough as the "savage beauty" and generic love interest.



The film features a great plot which is dripping with biting satire that wouldn't be out of place in a Jonathan Swift novel. Even better, the satire is still quite relevant to modern audiences, with apes hunting and experimenting on humans (animal testing), an ape social order (there's an obvious caste system in place), conservatism in science, the apes putting Taylor on trial and faith vs science in regards to the origin of man (and ape). The film also features some more on-the-nose satirical lines which, er, ape common sayings, such as "you know what they say, human see, human do" or the gorilla's funeral ("the deceased once said to me 'I never met an ape I didn't like'"). There's also priceless sight gags, such as the stuffed humans in the museum and the "3 wise monkeys" in Taylor's trial (which was actually improvised on set).

There are also some just plain great moments in the film. The trial sequence is notable for its satire, but it also manages to balance some truly affecting moments. I think my favourite is actually when the head orangutan says that Taylor's clothing smells repugnant and forces him to strip naked, dehumanizing him in the process. The look on Heston's face during this is just tragic and is one of those moments which really shows his acting chops as far as I'm concerned. The film also features some absolutely iconic sequences, such as the first appearance of the apes as they hunt the humans through the corn fields, or when Taylor regains his speech.


Actually, one of the things which interests me the most about Planet of the Apes is that the hero isn't really a hero at all. He's a cynical, self-serving asshole through-and-through. It's plain as day at the start of the film, but it's easy to forget this fact during the middle section when the apes become the greater evil. However, Taylor shows his true colours again in the third act when he orders around Zira and Cornelius (who are only trying to help him), threatens to execute Dr. Zaius and just generally acts like a dick. The purpose of this of course is to remind us that humanity is inherently selfish and violent, which sets up the ending and actually makes the villain sympathetic. Dr. Zaius comes across in the film as a despicable character who is only interested in perpetuating the status quo and who exerts complete authority over the heroes... but in the end, we're shown that he's actually pretty morally ambiguous. Not only is he trying to save his people from destruction, but he also "wins" by covering up any evidence of the origin of the apes.

Of course, this leads right into the twist. Planet of the Apes has an all-time classic ending, a total gut-punch and easily one of the best twists in all of cinema. It's fantastic and easily elevates Planet of the Apes from a "great" film to an "amazing" one. I got lucky and saw the movie when I was 11, so it actually hadn't been spoiled for me yet. I had seen Spaceballs, but I didn't really understand the reference or get the significance of it until I actually watched Planet of the Apes. It was an enthralling experience, I can only imagine how crushing it would have been for unprepared audiences in 1968.


Holy crap, how did I get this far without mentioning the make-up effects? Simply put, the make-up in this film is exquisite. The effects may not look like a modern day chimpanzee or orangutan, but they are very convincing as highly evolved apes. In fact, I have a very hard time distinguishing where the prosthetics begin and end - they're that good. The only real exception to this is on Maurice Evans' prosthetics sometimes - on the very rare occasion, you can see the end of the inside of his mouthpiece, but this is only a couple times in the whole movie perhaps. On the whole, the make-up effects are superb and still fairly convincing today... unfortunately the special effects are very dated though. In particular, the opening scene with the Icarus travelling at light speed is almost embarrassingly bad looking. Thankfully the film does not rely on these sorts of visual effects at all, discarding any need for such effects within the first 5 minutes (aside from some matte paintings, but these are all perfect). I hate to imagine how a film which relies solely on visual effects is going to look in 50 years... Transformers, I'm looking at you.

Other positives: Jerry Goldsmith's soundtrack is very notable. His score is very avant-garde, with a very primal sound which is almost reminiscent of a horror movie. The landscapes are also very breathtaking - the Forbidden Zone scenes are shot in the Grand Canyon around Lake Powell and the ending is shot on a beach in California, both of which make for stunning visuals. On the more negative side, Nova's basically a useless female love interest and eye candy which dominates films of this sort... although her one obvious positive is that she helps Taylor to care for some of humanity again. However, if you're a feminist then you'll probably get offended by the handling of Nova, although at least Zira's a very strong female character.

Bottom-line: Planet of the Apes is awesome. It's easily in my top 5 favourite films of all time... and maybe even my top 3. It's an all-time classic. If you haven't seen it, then do so!

9.5/10

Be sure to come back soon for part two of this retrospective series, Beneath the Planet of the Apes!

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

News Dump

Sorry if this blog post feels a little scatter-shot, but my update day happened to fall on the same day as my two final exams, and so I'm writing this in the time between them... then it's off to see Kick-Ass 2!* However, in the meantime let's take a look at some of the wild news I've had bookmarked for you wonderful people...

We're gonna start off with a bit of older news, but it was so funny that I couldn't not post it. You may remember a month ago that Toronto was hit with severe flooding, with total costs of the damage reaching nearly $1 billion. The scale of the flooding made for many stunning images which were a reminder to all of the unpredictability of nature... nah, just kidding, it made people put on their tinfoil hats and go online:


These were literally the first comments on the article (you can check it out yourself, they're still the top comments on the linked story). Of course we have an apocalyptic harbinger, because suddenly a flood actually affects you and it must mean that the Bible was speaking directly to you when it said there'd be increasing floods (what are the chances that people said the same in centuries past during floods?). Bruce Lees' comment is the real gold though, the detail of his post really makes me think that this isn't just trollbait. If you're looking to start a flam ewar, why would they go into detail about the "Woodpecker" and "HAARP"? Furthermore, these are actually involved in conspiracy theorizing, so they don't just pull words out of a hat and laugh - there's a very good chance that they actually believe that the government is controlling the weather. Even better, they tell us to "read the science people, now", which obviously will just further refute their special blend of insanity. Then, rounding out the stupid comments is "SCIENCE" who seems to be trying to mediate to no one in particular (and everyone at the same time). Actually that describes them pretty well because they don't seem to be settling on a point at all: they are saying, more or less, that sometimes people are wrong, but not always. Not the same level of stupid as the other comments, but it's one of those typical Internet commentators who thinks they can wield a level of control and pacify millions of anonymous people's opinions. Good luck with that.

Oh and speaking of crazy people, there's the woman who claims to own the sun and is going to charge us for using it. I think I can leave it at that because that's another special brand of crazy (...or perhaps she's shrewd like a fox).

Anyway, moving away from insanity to something more political, I was entertained by an article recently about why the media is not liberal. I know that the term "liberal media" gets passed around a lot by self-acknowledged conservatively-biased news networks (such as CNN and Sun News Media... and, uh, by my parents as well). I don't really agreed with that assessment, but this article actually points out why it's a flawed idea quite well. If anything, the media is (in general) probably closer to a centrist position, taking bits of conservatism and liberalism. There's also the possibility that more conservatives are becoming increasingly alienated by gay rights, marijuana legalization, libertarianism (which is actually a conservative trait generally), etc so so assume that the media is automatically biased against them. That's just my thoughts at the moment, but I'm planning on reading into it more and coming up with a more concrete opinion.

And rounding out this blog post is a diatribe on the biggest cancer in TV today, TLC, and their 1 hour special The Man with the 132-lb Scrotum. Apparently back in the day TLC used to be an educational channel, but then they realized "hey we can make a lot of money off of derivative reality TV and sensationalist garbage". Hence a line-up of mindless TV shows about antique hunters, pawn shops, guys making cakes, retarded rednecks and now a guy with a scrotum that weighs almost as much as I do. It's total tabloid attention-grabbing, exploiting the guy (who is in serious need of medical attention) like he's a freak show attraction. TLC is a terrible TV network and this latest special just further reinforces that idea.

Finally, just a note on the next retrospective series: since I'll be done school today, I'll finally have time to work on it. As a result, the new series will begin next week. Be sure to tune in for it, it's going to be funner than a barrel of monkeys!

*POST-SCRIPT: I actually quite liked the movie, I know it's getting savaged by critics (28% TomatoMeter as of 20/08/13), but if you're a fan of the original it retains much of the elements which made the first movie so good. That said, it's not as good as the first one was, but it is far, FAR better than the comic it's based on.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

"Best of the Public"

If you've been on the Internet for a while, chances are you've heard of the batshit insanity which is Conservapedia, a wiki with an extremely abrasive, right-wing, Christian fundamentalist bias. Featuring such enlightening articles such as how all liberals are totally stupid, corrupt degenerates and a list of college majors that'll turn you into a dirty liberal, the site is clearly totally unreliable to anyone with half a mind to think for themselves - and yes, I'm including plenty of conservatives in that estimation since the site alienates all but the most hard-line fundamentalists. However, Conservapedia does include one interesting little tidbit to be stumbled upon that I've been mulling over lately. The site's founder, Andrew Schlafly, famously declared in an interview that "the best of the public is better than a group of experts". Unlike most things espoused on Conservapedia, I think that the best of the public is a philosophical idea which actually deserves some examining to determine whether or not it actually holds any water, and to see why Conservapedia might want to promote such a doctrine.

The primary philosophical idea which Conservapedia tries to combat with the best of the public is that of "gatekeeping". Gatekeepers refer to those who control the flow of knowledge, and can affect the social perceptions of individuals. This is also how experts are created because they are educated within the social system - as a result, their beliefs are often tempered towards the status quo. This also ties into credentials, since having good credentials signals that someone is an "expert" and therefore more powerful on the social hierarchy than someone who has no credentials. As a result, people will continue to support the status quo in order to avoid losing their authority. This is the basic idea that the editors of Conservapedia put forth to support their best of the public philosophy: since "experts" are compromised by the status quo, they cannot support the truth. The public is free from such conflicts of interest and therefore a non-expert can look on a subject without bias. However, since they are not credentialed experts, the best of the public are often shot down by experts for not having experience. In its most basic form, the best of the public actually seems to offer a decent argument for why the public can be better than the morally compromised experts. Continuing this Philosophy 101 line of thought, Conservapedia experts seem to feel that the best of the public are like those who were released from Plato's cave, individuals who aren't trapped in a monolithic structure and are able to see the truth that the experts are ignorant of.


However, the whole philosophy has some pretty enormous logical holes. First of all, how does one determine who the best of the public are? Does any random Joe Shmoe off the street qualify? The only way I can give the idea any sort of credence is if the "best of the public" has extensive knowledge of a subject in question, otherwise they're just "the public"... of course, this dramatically lowers the number of people who can qualify, and overlaps significantly with "experts". The examples on the best of the public page don't really help clarify matters any - how the hell is the Virgin Mary an example of the "best of the public"??? Is anyone who did anything without getting credentialed for it first suddenly considered "the best"? Geez, I must be the best Tim Horton's employee ever because I didn't do my training videos to get credentialed!

Pfft, look at those "experts". I'd take 'em all on in a Timbit war, blindfolded.

There's also the problem that the best of the public just makes less sense than credentialing. Put simply, the expert opinion social structure has more sound reasoning behind it. Experts are considered as such for a reason - they (generally) know what the hell they're talking about. They've studied the topic for years and so should have a good idea of the arguments and counter-arguments within the community. Comparing an expert to a guy who read all about a topic on Wikipedia Conservapedia and then claiming that the uncredentialed guy has more authority on a subject than someone who dedicated their life to studying and experiencing it is just lunacy. Oh and of course, if the uncredentialed person in question is a liberal then they're disqualified from being the best of the public by default regardless of their stance.

This really leads into the obvious problem with the best of the public - it's espoused by Conservapedia and therefore has an extreme fundamentalist-conservative bias. Conservapedia's editors will claim that the experts are biased and the best of the public aren't, but their entire conception of who qualifies is based on their political leaning - disagree with Conservapedia, and you're suddenly exempt from qualification. Conservapedia also seems to be at odds with itself in determining the best of the public and experts, because they still cite "reputable" sources on their pages and Andrew Schlafly's own page is just a rundown of all the credentials he has. It's pretty clear that the best of the public is just used by Conservapedia as an excuse to discredit ideologies that they disagree with (eg, evolution) and replace them with pro-fundamentalist ideologies (eg, creationism and/or intelligent design).

While the best of the public is probably not a very great way to go about reforming the social construction of knowledge, it does have some good insights. Experts might be given too much credit sometimes, as it's very easy for them to throw out their credentials or experience and rub it in someone's face, rather than addressing counter-arguments directly. Ideally, the best of the public can stand beside expert opinion and shape knowledge together... but they'll have to put politics aside first if they want the idea to have any sort of chance of working.

For the love of God, please put the politics away before someone gets hurt.

For further reading on the issues with the best of the public, check out the RationalWiki's article on the subject. Just a note of discretion, RationalWiki is basically just the anti-Conservapedia-wiki so it's not like its unbiased, but the points they make are certainly quite valid and helped shape my own ideas on the subject.

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Video Game Review: Tomb Raider (2013)

I've never really had much interest in the Tomb Raider franchise. There was always a stigma of sexism which surrounded the series due to Lara Croft's sex icon status. If you were a guy and you played Tomb Raider games then you only wanted to stare at her boobs and ass. However, with the release of the Uncharted series, Indiana Jones-style adventuring was back in vogue and an intriguing reboot of the Tomb Raider series was announced that finally piqued my interest. It was going to star a vulnerable, unskilled Lara Croft. It was going to be more about survival than action. It was going to have a very mature story. Lara was actually going to be realistically proportioned. Stigma be damned, as soon as it was announced the Tomb Raider reboot was on my must-play list. Did the game manage to live up to the hype? Read on to find out... (Note that this is only a single-player review, I didn't bother with the unnecessary multiplayer mode.)


Tomb Raider opens in a bit of a mess. I'm not referring to the whole sinking of Lara's ship and dead bodies kind of mess: I mean that it fumbles the narrative and gameplay right out of the gate. It starts in media res which might be fine for an action-focused game, but this really hurts the narrative off the bat. If they had given the game a real opening, maybe I would have known who the secondary characters where and maybe I actually would have given two shits about them. However, story seems to have been set aside in favour of an Uncharted 2-style explosive opening - a terrible compromise in my opinion, since it hamstrings at least the first act of the game. In fact, the opening also features a jumble of quick-time events and scripted set-pieces which feel like its hewing too closely to the Uncharted formula... don't get me wrong, I love the Uncharted games, but their formula doesn't work in every game. It's kind of like how after Die Hard every action movie was set in a single location, or how after The Bourne Ultimatum every action movie had quick cuts and shaky cam: it just reeks of studio-enforced money-grubbing pandering to the lowest common denominator.


While the game's opening was a bit of a mess, there are some great mechanics underlying the gameplay. The game features an XP system which is very fun, encouraging you to maximize the yield of your actions to level up. It might be a little tonally-off for the young, vulnerable Lara to be headshotting everyone with her new bow, but it's forgivable. The game also features a weapon-upgrading system based on finding salvage, which changes the weapons as one would expect it to. However, there are also some very cool upgrades, such as explosive or incendiary ammo or the ability to get burst-fire on your pistol. In addition, the game features plenty of traversal options when you unlock the pick axe and rope arrows - the game ends up playing like a funner version of Assassin's Creed as Lara finds herself traversing the environment (although these can be somewhat imprecise... I died from failed jumps more than anything else). Finally, while the narrative might be half-baked and the secondary characters aren't given their due, Lara Croft herself is given a proper development and is actually fairly well fleshed out. Her development is quite natural and actually works into the game with the player unlocking new abilities and weapons.

However, as I've alluded to, weak point of the game is definitely its story. Between the gameplay, the half-baked characters and the script, it just doesn't convince. Why should we give a damn about any of the characters when we don't even know anything about them (barring Conrad Roth I suppose)? Most of them are just there to be plot devices... especially Whitman, who you know is going to be a traitor as soon as he appears on screen. Lara's supposed to be vulnerable and just barely surviving, but how are we supposed to believe this when she survives a dozen falls from extreme heights by pure luck? Or how about when racks up a bodycount in the hundreds all by herself? This particular problem definitely feels like an Uncharted ripoff - Lara just so happens to land on an island inhabited by cultists of the "murder everyone for no reason" kind. Narratively, Tomb Raider just doesn't lend itself to the requisite third-person shooter bodycount and the game actually gets quite tedious at the points where it turns into a linear shootout (especially because enemies LOVE throwing molotov cocktails which force you to move from cover and back over and over again). The game's also just gratuitously violent at times, seemingly just to hammer home that it's "gritty" and "mature". There's one section which is a total rip off of The Descent where Lara falls into a random pool of blood. There's also dead bodies and guts just lying all over the island for little discernible reason... I guess because the bad guys are cultists and all religious people are mindlessly violent and irrational... *ahem* That said, the game didn't really have any real reason to not get itself a Teen rating, because the gore that they threw into the game is just unnecessary.


Even worse, the game is supposed to be about survival and makes a huge deal about having a hunting system, but it's 100% optional - you get a bit of XP for killing animals and some salvage if you have an upgrade, but that's it. Tomb Raider would have really benefited from a Metal Gear Solid 3-style survival system where you have to keep Lara from starving to death, and would have certainly helped make the game feel less linear than it is. A related issue is that you don't even have to worry about non-human enemies, because the only ones that appear are a small group of wolves at the start of the game... and then that's it. I never saw another wolf after the cultists showed up. That's just a damn shame. Killing human enemies makes the game feel like another boring third-person shooter...


I guess the bottom-line is that Tomb Raider isn't what I was hoping it would be. I was hoping for more of an emphasis on the survival aspect, but what I got instead was a game with great mechanics buried beneath an Uncharted-wannabe (oh the irony). That said, as the game progresses it becomes quite fun in spite of its shortcomings - I definitely was enjoying it by the end. However, I think the game would have benefited if it had cut the cultists entirely (or at least reduced their ranks significantly), emphasized player vs environment and survival gameplay and increased the number of puzzles. In fact, the puzzle-based sections were the highlights of the game. The Uncharted series has always struggled with its "puzzles", which typically are insultingly easy, but Tomb Raider's puzzles are very fun to attempt. They're not particularly difficult, but they are very satisfying to complete when you figure them out. Anyway, with those elements the game would have been much better - of course once you beat the game you can travel back to the hubs and do just that. Hmm... I might have to go back and go do some open-world tomb raiding unshackled from a mediocre third-person shooter narrative...

7.5/10

By the way, the next Retrospective series should be starting in about 2 or 3 weeks. I'll be finished school on the 20th of August, and so will have more free time once again at that point - it was hell finishing the Resident Evil retrospectives and just finding time to write blog posts since the start of July when school started up again. That said, I'm really looking forward to writing about the next series - it's a personal favourite, which should alleviate the negative feelings which tend to permeate the Retrospectives. Until next time then!