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July 24, 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: A Post-World Primer

The first thing I noticed about Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is that its opening sequence is eerily identical to the opening sequence of The Last of Us.

If you know how I feel about that game, then you know that it didn’t exactly get me hyped for the hours to come.  I mean, it’s like I was playing through it all over again.  Reports and news broadcasts over mostly-black graphics; talk of a spreading disease/virus/world-ending thingamajig; the info growing progressively direr as time goes on; the last broadcast effectively signaling the end of the world; it’s all there.  I pretty much went “Oh, great.  It’s one of these stories.”  It wasn’t, thankfully, but the fear was still there at the outset. 

In all honesty, it feels like a lot of the time I get too ahead of myself.  Like, I’m pretty sure there have been posts where I’ve said that certain models -- certain storytelling conceits and frameworks -- are “broken”, and need to take at least a break from the public consciousness.  Even then, I’m certain that my…distaste for “gritty” stories is well-documented.  So once again, let me make one thing clear: I don’t hate dark or gritty stories because they’re dark.  I hate them (and not even all of them) if/when they betray their central premises and quality just to give the people what they think they want.  And speaking in terms of stuff like The Last of Us and AMC’s The Walking Dead, the post-apocalypse is something that needs a lot more work and attention than it’s gotten…yet those two “bastions” haven’t delivered.  At least to me.

But this latest Apes movie has.  And now I’ll show you why.

As you can guess, there are going to be plenty of spoilers for Dawn, The Walking Dead, The Last of Us, and probably more.  So get ready for that hotness.

Also, as a side note: I tried the Destiny beta.  You can PROBABLY guess how I feel about that.  Post incoming (maybe), but in the meantime?  Just watch this and substitute “Transformers” with “Destiny”, “Michael Bay” with “Activision”, and “robots” with “guns”.  Well, just to start.

Before I get started, I should make clear that this is not the de facto guide to writing a good post-apocalyptic story.  There are plenty of ways to go about it, and there’s no straight shot toward success.  As always, it takes a steady hand and a sharp mind; that’s enough to write any kind of story.  My intent with this post is to try and highlight what I’d consider important -- the sort of things I would do if given the chance.  More to the point, I want to try and use Dawn of the Planet of the Apes as an example, because it does a lot of things that lesser fare just can’t be bothered with.  It’s hardly the ultimate example, either (it’s good, but not without fault), but it is one of the more recent ones, and a movie that’s still fresh on my mind.

Moving on, I want to try and make this as simple as possible.  There are plenty of lessons to take from Dawn, but for convenience’s sake -- i.e. so you don’t have to read eleventy zaptillion words -- I’d prefer to do this with the four best points possible.  So I’ll do just that.  BUT I’ll separate them into two groups.  The first two will be the character-centric things that a post-world story should try and do, and the others will be world-centric.  Both are important, and while characters will always have an obvious edge in terms of the attention they receive, you have to consider the setting as a character as well -- ESPECIALLY in a post-world story.

Get it?  Got it?  Good.  Then let’s take this step-by-step.

1) Give your characters a clear-cut goal.
In the off-chance that I do another post on Ni no Kuni in the next century, there’s one point in particular that I wanted to bring up first.  See, the inciting incident for the entire game (not a spoiler, since it happens in the first hour) is that main character Oliver’s one act of rebellion against his mother’s wishes -- going out to play with a friend’s go-kart one night -- leads to his mother getting forced to save him when things go wrong…which leads to her dying. 

Everything that happens after that (up to and including traveling to an alternate universe full of magic) is based on Ollie acting under the pretense that doing so will bring his mother back to life.  No telling if that’ll bear fruit by story’s end, but it would be a lesson too bitter for a ten-year-old boy.  Or…not bitter enough.  Whatever the case, the important thing to take away from the game is that it offers up something easy to ignore, but precious all the same.

And that, fair reader, is motivation.

What’s the MC doing?  Why does it matter to him or her?  What’s the stake in the matter?  What would be lost if the journey failed?  Questions like that and more are important, and they’re questions that lead to something with a huge amount of weight -- at least, they should.  Oliver’s motivation is that he wants to get his mom back.  And that’s good.  Great, even; it helps the audience gain emotional investment, because even though we only knew his mom for a little while, we saw how much he loved and respected her, how one little mistake can have big consequences, and how devastated he was when she was gone.  Sure, the game does snap into the “save the world” thrust (which I’ll get back to before post’s end), but there’s an undercurrent that means something -- to the character, and by proxy to us.

Compare that to something like, say, The Walking Dead.  Okay, sure, the gang all wants to protect themselves and their family (blood-related or otherwise), but setting aside the fact that the whole “family bonds” thing feels hollow when it’s taken the better part of four seasons for these people to stop having (fewer) “tense” arguments over stuff that doesn’t matter to us, the goal there isn’t exactly to “save a loved one”.  It’s to “survive”.  That’s what you’d expect in Zombietopia, Georgia, but the will to survive is pretty much a given, in fiction or otherwise.  It takes more than that to earn an audience’s favor -- especially when the characters themselves don’t have what it takes to win them over with any endearing traits.  (I'd have a hard time explaining what set Andrea apart from Lori, personality-wise.)

You can’t use the excuse of “it’s in the middle of a zombie apocalypse, so OF COURSE all they want to do is survive!”  I can understand why people want to live (because living is awesome), but if they want to do that conclusively, they need a much better methodology than just “wander around and hope to find a safe haven”.  To the show’s credit, they did make strides toward that in Season 2, but the problem is that Season 2 had to happen.  Instead of moving forward and getting closer to an endgame, the characters and show alike stagnated.  Part of the reason why I sat through the back half of Season 4 was because the group was moving toward something else: regrouping, and making it to Terminus.  It wasn’t the be-all and end-all, but it was something.

What makes Dawn work, conversely, is that it’s not content with just spinning its wheels.  The humans are trying to survive, yes, but there’s more to it than that.  They want to rebuild society.  They want to reconnect with the outside world.  They want to restore power, and regain what was lost thanks to the viral outbreak.  That’s a good motivation to have.  There are stakes in that.  There’s tension in that.  Can the humans rebuild the world?  Can they survive in it, now that the apes have a foothold? 

And the apes have their motivation too; Caesar wants to prevent a war.  Caesar wants the humans to stay out, and stay in their control -- but as time passes, Caesar learns that humans are pretty cool, and they can work together…and he fights for that well before movie’s end.  Again, that’s a good motivation.  Characters that care about things -- others, their world, their futures, and more -- have a HUGE advantage over those that don’t.

Prove me wrong.

2) Portray each character as fairly as possible.
The implication with a lot of post-world stories is that the world can never, ever be restored to its former state.  Until the real world faces the threat of total wipeout, we probably won’t know how well that concept holds up for a while -- but even if I am the Eternal Optimist, I can’t deny that there’s probably some merit and possibility for everything we know to stop existing.  More to the point, I can buy (not put too much stock in, but buy) the idea that people will default to chaos, no doubt to a fault.  Personally, I find that mindset boring in a story, for the reasons listed above and more.  And thankfully, there are characters -- whole groups, even -- trying their hardest to make something out of the new world.

And then there are those that just want to screw everything up just ‘cause.

I said as much about TWD last time, and to a friend, but I’ll go ahead and repeat it here: if Team Rick successfully found a safe haven in Terminus, the show would be over.  That’s the way it works; they can’t have conflict without putting these people in immediate danger, so they (the writers and/or the characters themselves) have to create settings where safety is impossible -- i.e. settings in which order is impossible.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing in its own right, even if you could argue that it’s artificially extending the show’s life span.

It DOES become a problem, however, when you can’t identify with anyone because they turn into the worst kinds of caricatures.

This isn’t just a problem with TWD.  Plenty of stories have this same issue, and I’m hard-pressed to think of anything that sets me off more.  This feeds into my pet peeve with “the designated hero”, but it goes a little beyond that.  See, the idea with a darker story (let’s just focus on that for a bit) is that they’re going to be smart about how they play things.  We let the story get away with losing some of its levity and spirit for the sake of exploring ideas and themes -- and often, that’s done with the story’s characters.  The way it should be.

But when it’s done poorly -- when there’s an obvious lean toward one side -- then it devalues that exploration of themes and ideas.  The whole Woodbury conflict in Season 3 of TWD sticks out to me (least of all because the story got some focus vis a vis The Governor) because while its leader wasn’t exactly the best guy, he still nurtured a town that gave the people solace and sanctuary.  But then Michonne comes in and ruins The Governor’s life -- and drives him insane, and toward being the villain she thought he was but actually wasn’t -- and then Rick comes in with his team and ruins Woodbury.  He had justification for coming in (saving his captured pals), but I’ve had a hard time sympathizing with The Team since then.  It probably has something to do with the fact that, to my knowledge, none of them have ever bothered asking if what they did in Woodbury was right.

Eh, it’s fine.  They’re main characters!  They’re allowed to do that stuff, so don’t think about it too hard!

I said don't think about it too hard, Rick!  DON'T!

“People do desperate things to survive” isn’t a lesson, theme, or idea you can bank on from start to finish, least of all as a justification for a character’s actions.  Setting aside the fact that it gets incredibly boring, it raises a lot of ethical questions that you’d think a post-world story would want to explore, but doesn’t.  There has to be more to the characters than making broad-strokes with them and slotting them into binary roles of “good guy, bad guy”.  You have to spend time with them and show the audience what they’re about.  And you certainly can’t flip-flop on a whim just because you suddenly need to insert a villain or some conflict to cap an arc.

Ahem, ahem.

Nah, it’s cool.  I mean, wouldn’t you try to mount a fourteen-year-old girl in the middle of a burning building after outing yourself as a cannibal, itself coming after your introduction as a rational, level-headed, and even kind leader?  S’all good, man!

But let’s get real here.  This point is more than just what Dawn understands; it’s what helped make it such a well-executed movie.  Apes with machine guns (ugh) might have figured strongly into the promotions, but by and large there isn’t a single character that wants to go to war…well, maybe Koba, but he’s a special case.  Everyone understands that if there’s a conflict between the humans and apes, there’s going to be death, suffering, and loss on both sides.  Caesar wants to avoid that at all costs, and along with the human rep Malcolm, they fight their hardest to bridge the gap between the two species.

The conflict only starts because two of the characters (Koba for the apes, Dreyfus for the humans) believe that conflict is inevitable -- and end up creating a self-fulfilling prophecy because of it.  Koba plays offense and ends up launching the first real attack on the humans.  Dreyfus plays defense and stockpiles the weapons that make Koba think that they’ll be the first to attack.  They’re problem-starters, but they’re still rounded characters with thoughts and concerns beyond BEEP BEEP BOOP BOOP MUST MAKE PLOT THREADS POSSIBLE.  Koba is a victim of his loyalty, torn between serving Caesar and looking out for his fellow apes the way his leader won’t.  Dreyfus buys into his own rhetoric and believes without question in humanity’s future, knowing all too well that there are people who want to see -- or better yet, build -- their families.  That’s fair.  That’s good.  And that’s how you do it.

Not like that, though.  #CarverRuinedEverything

3) Make a world that an audience would want to explore.
You would think that as someone who plays (too many) video games (too often), I’d have an unparalleled grasp on the importance and mechanics of a good setting.  I don’t.  I’m better than I used to be, but there’s still much for me to learn.  Hopefully other stories -- good or bad -- can show me the way, but I suspect there’s something to be gained from getting in so deep with Virtual Whatever Simulator 2000XX.

It’s been a long time since I played it, but I can’t help but think back to Fallout 3.  It doesn’t get much more post-apocalyptic than that; America is in shambles, there are mutants everywhere, and radiation is a genuine threat.  When you step out of your vault for the first time, you don’t find a brave new world; you find a world that’s pretty much dead.  Or so you’d think; in reality, the world of Fallout 3 is no worse off than the average MMO, give or take.  You can have conversations with mutants.  There’s still an economic system in place.  The first town is built around an inactive atomic bomb.  All of those things and more help put up a sense of wonder, of dark majesty; a rusted playground in that game has just as much to offer as the deepest and most verdant forest.

The trick, I think, is that Fallout 3 -- and plenty of good post-world stories -- is always looking forward, while the bad ones are content with always looking backward.  The world has been destroyed, but in exchange, a new one is set for our pleasure.  It’s got its own style, its own rules, its own character, and more.  So what if the old America is gone?  There’s a new one now where people can still live in relative comfort.  That’s something to appreciate.  And you can (and likely will) as you go further in; you’re allowed to go on your own adventures, and come to your own conclusions.  What you take from a good post-world story is entirely up to you.

Compare that to The Last of Us (I’m gonna get some flak for this…).  It’s true that in the first chapter of the game -- following the prologue -- you get to see what the world is like twenty years after the zombie outbreak.  Joel Grumpybuns starts while fenced in by THE MAN in a quarantined zone, but that eventually gives way to a journey across a hollowed-out America…that was absolutely torturous for me.

There was nothing for me to sink my teeth into but the same general, less-than-subtle lesson over and over again: THESE THINGS ARE PRECIOUS, BUT WON’T LAST FOREVER!  And by extension, shouting in my ear SEE THIS?  THIS IS GONE, AND THESE PEOPLE WILL NEVER GET IT BACK!  It’s not a lesson or theme without merit, but you don’t need seventeen wretched hours to get that point across.  You do if that’s the only card in your hand, but you shouldn’t put yourself in that position in the first place.

But TLoU did.  It didn’t have anything to show besides dilapidated buildings, survivors that by and large were barely any different from Joel Grumpybuns, and records of people getting wrecked by zombies.  Just in case you couldn’t figure out that things weren’t peachy-keen.   Well, it did have that scene with the giraffes, and that one “boss fight” with the deer.  But I guess instead of putting in something genuinely affecting, the devs decided to put in an old movie poster of a grizzled man hugging his daughter close to his chest.

Well, what do you expect?  Gamers can’t be counted on to think for themselves!  Just put something in their faces and they’ll eat it right up!  Load up the trough with gruel and call in the pigs!

…Did you know I’m still bitter about that game? 

If we’re being completely honest, I wouldn’t mind a game based on Dawn (even if they just copied everything except the name).  Do you know how long it took for me to buy into what the movie was selling?  Seven minutes.  If that.  The opening sequence when you see the apes in their now-natural habitat, cooperating and coordinating a big hunt, got my attention and showed glimpses of what the movie’s world was about.  And then it kept going, and showed me the rest of the apes’ society.  And then it kept going, and showed me what it meant to live in the new and unimproved San Francisco.  And then it kept going, and showed me what life was like for the gathered survivors.

I will be fair.  A dilapidated city riddled with foliage isn’t exactly a game-changer; if I said Dawn’s settings were revolutionary while blasting TLoU, I’d be a damn dirty hypocrite.  But ignoring the fact that Dawn has multiple settings, the movie makes its world feel weightier.  It feels like it’s bigger, and it matters.  I would think that it has something to do with the presence of the people -- humans or apes -- and while that’s probably a contributing factor, I’m not so foolish as to say that’s the only way to win.  You can get a very affecting story with personal drama alone, even in a post-world story (i.e. the promise made but ultimately broken by TLoU).  But you can also use both the characters AND the setting working in tandem to create the strongest tag-team imaginable.

And that feeds into the final point.

4) Make a world that can suffer from dire consequences.
I’ve heard the complaint that the whole “save the world” plotline is tired and lazy -- that it’s just a shortcut to get to the action and such.  I can see why people would say that, and considering how I JUST said that you can get a very affecting story with personal drama alone, I know that there are alternatives.  No need to stick to a formula, or audience expectations.  But speaking personally, I don’t have as much of a problem with it…well, any problem with it compared to others.

Care to know why?  Easy.  BECAUSE IT WORKS.

Characters -- heroes, especially -- need to be proactive in terms of the plot.  Their actions should have consequences, both good and bad.  Let me put it this way: IF the hero doesn’t act, then the world he/she lives in is going to wind up in a worse state than before.  That’s the unspoken rule -- something that the audience understands the instant they know “save the world” is the basic plot.  It’s the responsibility of the story and its creator(s) to make its characters and its world matter to the audience, no matter how big the divide between them and the story.  As long as The Deal goes through, it’s easy to forgive banking on such a basic model.  If you make people understand that the world can get worse, and make them attached to that world, then you’re likely going to be in better shape.

And if you’ll let me give credit where credit is due, TLoU actually had the right idea.  Joel Grumpybuns is tasked with taking Not-Ellen Page Ellie across America to try and find a cure -- or vaccine, at least -- for the zombie virus.  (It’s not really something that he’s motivated to do, given that he starts out doing it as a last wish for his late lady friend, but I guess it’s something.)  IF he doesn’t succeed, then humanity really will lose its last hope at a better life.  It might even get worse. 

Granted there would still be plenty of work to be done even if they did get the vaccine from Ellie…and it wouldn’t solve any of the inherent societal issues everyone pretty much stopped trying to solve…and the zombies are only really a threat when it’s time for a cutscene to play out…and the threat is cut down even further thanks to nearly every named character being a walking armory, including the player character who carries around a fully-functional flamethrower at nearly all times by the game’s halfway point, give or take…and everyone’s so dead-set on the “endure and survive” mantra that they don’t have the foresight to

Are you starting to see why I have problems with that game, people?

But I think I’ll take it over TWD.  If Joel didn’t get Ellie to the Fireflies’ place, it would be like kissing the future goodbye.  If Team Rick doesn’t do…whatever…then nothing of value would be lost.  Okay, that’s not 100% true; with the back half of Season 4 introducing Abraham, Rosita, and Eugene into the mix -- all of whom are trying to do with Eugene what Joel tried to do with Ellie, more or less -- there’s the implication that character inaction = worldly degradation. 

But setting aside the fact that it’s becoming a minor point now that Team Abraham has been absorbed into Team Rick, you have to remember that this is a recent development.  For years’ worth of episodes, these people have done nothing but try and take care of themselves -- a goal and overarching plot that could have played out with any group of survivors.  True, taking care of Team Rick alone isn’t an instant failure state, but they haven’t justified that personal drama.  They haven’t made the investment in these characters easy.  And because of it, they make an already small world feel smaller.

I have a hard time believing that there’s anything a few yards beyond that forest.  If that.

In all fairness, you could poke holes in Dawn’s presentation of the post-world as well.  We know that there are other survivors out there thanks to the messages Dreyfus and his team send and receive, but we don’t know the full extent of their spread, condition, or capabilities.  By movie’s end there are supposed to be soldiers on the way, but that could just mean guys running around with pointy sticks.  Likewise, the movie is called Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, but even if there are lots of apes running around San Francisco, there’s not a lot of -- if any -- proof that the apes are widespread across the globe.  The sequel should give a clear answer, but those are the questions I have right now.

Either way, the important thing is that the movie hammers in just how much weight the whole situation carries -- and on multiple levels.  IF relations break down between the humans and apes, there’s going to be a war that leaves both sides and both homes in ruins.  IF Caesar can’t lead his people toward the proper conclusion (a peaceful solution), then they’ll do their part to make a bad situation worse and end up regretting it.  IF Malcolm can’t get the dam to work, then his band of survivors won’t have enough supplies to last for more than a couple of weeks.  The plates are spinning, and an audience can’t help but hold their breath at the mere thought of seeing one of them fall.

And when they ALL fall -- almost simultaneously -- it lets the movie hit home.  Hard.

It really is impressive how much content -- and how much intellectual heft -- Dawn managed to pack into such a short time frame.  You’d think that with greater length, games like TLoU and TV shows like TWD would have the edge.  You’d think that they could go even further, and provide a world you could experience without handicap, or build an unbreakable bond between the real and unreal that only grows by the week.  But alas.  It just wasn’t meant to be.

But it’s fine.  Dawn has shown us all how it can be done.  The post-world scenario doesn’t have to be a broken model, as long as a creator uses skill and wit to bring every element of it to life.  To its full potential, instead of stopping at the halfway point.  Treating an audience with respect is something that anyone should get in the practice of doing.  But it goes further than that.  You have to treat the story -- your story -- with respect, too.  Put in that effort.  Go to every corner you can.  Leaving possibilities unexplored -- leaving entire chunks of the building process in exchange for shortcuts and conventions is the biggest disservice any creator can do.  Learn that, even if you can’t get over apes with machine guns.

I wouldn’t blame you if you couldn’t.  They almost made me skip out on the movie.  Jeez, promos these days are problematic…

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