Thursday, December 24, 2015

Fallout 4: Why I supported the Institute

Fallout 4
(a review with spoilers)

I love the Fallout games. I played Fallout 1, 2, 3, New Vegas, and now FO4. A retro-sci-fi world blown to hell by nuclear bombs, and now you must survive in it. Fallout 4 begins with a pre-war man frozen in a Vault and then thawed out 200 years after the bombs dropped. He witnesses his wife murdered and his infant son stolen. Now he climbs out of the Vault and into a bombed-out, radioactive Boston. There your character learns the people are paranoid of something called "Synths," androids that look so human they are taking the place of human beings. Nobody knows why, only that they come from a place called The Institute.

(At first I thought the plot resembled the Sega CD game Snatcher, but it's only superficial. At least we found out what the snatchers were for by the end of that game. FO4 can't claim that honor.)

I was overpowered by level 12. I could kill a Deathclaw with a combat shotgun by level 15. Almost never died past that point, even without power armor. This game is even more unbalanced than Skyrim. Caps are easy to get, good weapons and armor are so easy to find you almost never have to modify or craft anything, and there's so much stuff in the Commonwealth you'll never have a problem upgrading your weapons and armor or building anything. I reached the point where nothing is impossible so fast it's a letdown.

Character motivation is a bit of a problem, too. You do one thing for someone, and they want to make you their king. My character joined the Railroad for no good reason, helps the Minutemen even though he has no vested interest in doing so, and is offered to join the Brotherhood of Steel after doing one mission in which he mostly hides behind the guy with power armor and a laser rifle. This is a problem in Fallout 3 and New Vegas, but I think the fact that the player's character is voiced this time makes it more noticeable. When your character isn't voiced, you're free to imbue your own motivations onto him/her. Not so when he has a voice and a personality of his own.

Equipment no longer decays, which makes the game way too easy. I know it didn't decay in the first two games, but that's apples to oranges. Having to replace your shotgun every few dozen shots in a turn-based combat game would have made it more complicated than it needed to be.

The lack of skillpoints also makes the game too easy. Merging skillpoints with the perks system streamlines the leveling, but it means your character comes out of the Vault an expert at everything except lock-picking and hacking, and you merely add perks to make him even better at those things. Under the old system, you were inexperienced with weapons until you leveled up and added skill points to each category, and only then did your accuracy and damage inflicted improve. In Fallout 4, somehow your character knows how to aim a gun, use a missile launcher, handle a minigun, make weapon mods, use and maintain power armor, and cook Deathclaw Steak straight out of the Vault. It's not roleplaying. It's what Doomguy would be if Doom 3 had been an RPG.

In spite of this, I liked the main quest at first, and the sidequests were good as well, except for the settlement quests. They get tiresome quick. The whole crafting thing is tedious and ridiculous. No more ridiculous than your character somehow being able to carry a minigun, four rifles, three shotguns and thirty grenades on his person, but there's only so far you can take videogame logic before it stops being fun and starts being stupid. Somehow I can take wads of old paper money and turn them into beds?? I can build generators that never need refueling? I can build new houses by scrapping the ruined structures in each settlement? Come on, it's a Fallout game, not Simcity.

That the NPCs expect you to do everything for them is aggravating. If they needed me to do everything myself it would be ok, but no, they EXEPCT the player to do everything! Why do I have to go and clear out those ghouls? Why ask me to build you defense systems? Why ask me to build you a generator? Why can't you people do it? What are the Minutemen doing in Sanctuary that's so important they can't?!

It kinda gives people a false impression of what a military General actually does. He doesn't go out and fight bad guys himself; he orders others to face the enemy for a greater cause. Hell, real leaders don't do everything themselves. They tell others to do things for them! Leaders coordinate other people and then take the credit for their work; they're not some Übermensch who can do everything alone.

If caps weren't so easy to get, and you didn't know where to go to find out what happened to your son, then you'd have a reason to get involved with all these groups and do work for them. But since it's so easy to get rich in this game, and you know exactly where to go and what to do, you have no reason to join the Railroad, or the Brotherhood of Steel, or the Minutemen. It wasn't an issue in Fallout 1 and 2 because there was no stuff to collect and sell for easy caps. Getting caps was a difficult task, and you didn't know where to go or how to accomplish your mission. You had to complete quests to level up so you could improve your accuracy with guns and progress with the main quest. There's no necessity in the Bethesda Fallout games, so character motivation remains a huge problem.

The game is much more combat-heavy than the previous installments. There are fewer terminals to read and fewer local stories to find. Hell, there are only 3 Vaults to explore, and nothing in Fallout is more fun than discovering how evil Vault-Tech was! We only get a little bit of that this time. In Fallout 3 and NV, you had to go through the entire Vault to find out what the hell was going on, and the story was spread out across multiple terminals. In FO4, you find a terminal at the beginning of each Vault that outright explains the Vault's purpose, and nothing else. No buildup, no living the madness yourself before you get an explanation. The game is underwritten and over-actioned. There's somebody to fight around every corner, even outside of Boston, and wow it makes exploration an arduous task compared to Fallout 3 and NV.

I enjoyed the main story a lot more than Fallout 3 or Skyrim (but not more than New Vegas) for a while, but the further I progressed, the more the lack of character motivation bothered me. I'm not vested in any of these factions. I don't like how I was FORCED to be an important agent in the Railroad, leader of the Minutemen, and leader of the Institute! I didn't want to be any of those things, and I have no reason to go along with it!

In fact, the Minutemen become annoying by the end of the game. They preach a message of how we have to help each other to make life better in the Commonwealth, but they don't do a damn thing to help anyone! They expect me to run around the Commonwealth and do their dirty work for them! Defend this settlement, retake their old castle, build beds for them, build defenses for this settlement! Screw them! You people aren't doing anything but lounging around in Sanctuary! Get off your asses and practice what you preach!

There's no proof that the synths in the Institute are mere slaves and need to be liberated. The Railroad has a goal, and it's an admirable goal, but I went inside the Institute, and I don't see any enslavement, oppression, abuse, or hints that the Synths inside want to be free. To me, they seem to be just machines. What's the reward for guiding a Synth to freedom but condemning them to a life wandering the Commonwealth dodging bullets? That doesn't sound like much of a liberation.

There's no indication that the Institute is doing anything bad. After all that trouble to get inside, all I know about the Institute is that they plan to create robots to populate the post-war world, but so what? How does this save mankind? Do they plan to wipe out biological life, or upload it into machines, or merely recreate it with computer programs? I've been all over the Institute, and I find no terminals with useful information, and nobody gives more details, so I can't tell what exactly they're planning to do. I'd actually be all for uploading. That sounds like an improvement. How is this bad? Is there more to their plan? What about the FEV experiments? Why is there no option to ask about them? Information is not being withheld from me. There just isn't any.

There's even less reason to get involved with the Brotherhood of Steel. I wasn't interested in them from the start because their goal seems to be martial law, but for what? The Brotherhood has been an ambiguous faction since game 1, so I didn't feel bad becoming their enemy. Your character has no reason to join them because doing so does not help him find his son!

Without more information about what each side's goal is, how can I make a decision about which faction to support? While I don't expect the factions to be black or white, I was hoping for more details about what they're doing. I was at a loss for whose side to be on. It's the lack of information that bugs me, not the ambiguity. I'd be all for ambiguous good guys and bad guys if I knew more about them so I could weigh the pros and cons and choose who to support, but the game doesn't give enough context to do so.

Again, underwritten and over-actioned. As many reviewers on Steam have pointed out, Fallout has become an FPS with RPG elements instead of the other way around. It actually made the game less fun as I continued the main story. The only reward for progressing is special loot. In previous Fallout games, more story was your reward for exploration. Loot is not a good reward when you're already overpowered; it makes you feel like that journey was a waste of time because you already have five good weapons and armor with special bonuses. More of that does not satisfy. I wanna know more about these people, and the game provides no details.

I sided with the Institute. Because your character's son is in charge of it, it is the only faction you have a reason to join after seeing the war zone that is the Commonwealth. I'm pretty sure it's supposed to be the wrong choice, but it's the only one that makes sense.

So I reached the end. I killed everyone in the Railroad, blew up the Brotherhood of Steel, was surprised I didn't have to destroy the Minutemen, and there is no multi-part ending sequence showing how the choices you made affected various areas of the Commonwealth. No information on what the Institute does without opposition, and what it means for the future.

No matter what you do, the ending is the same, and you never learn the consequences of your choices. What absolute bullshit. Much like the dialogue "trees," all choices converge on a single path to the same end. Why bother being able to choose which faction to support if the end is the same?!

Sure, it's a good shooter, the action is good, the details are great, and the conversation system is so much better with cinematic angles (but worse for a maximum of 4 dialogue choices that have no effect on the outcome of the conversation), but there's no writing, or roleplaying. Fallout has been dumbed down! It's the next generation of consoles; they could've done even more with the storytelling and the branching choices! But there's no story. There are no more details about each faction. There is no reason to side with any faction. Nothing you do changes the ending, and you never find out what the Institute was planning, and how the Commonwealth fares depending on which choices you make. Fallout 4 forgets to be a Fallout game. It's a good action shooter, but there's nothing underneath to support it. What a disappointment.

Now that the game is over, there's nothing left to do but try and romance a Deathclaw.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Jurassic Park (Sega CD)

My review of Armikrog. reminded me I never posted a review of Jurassic Park on Sega CD. I didn't post it then because at the time I figured who cares what I think of a game nobody played on a system nobody owned. I still think that, but since there's no writing news, why not ramble on about it.

Jurassic Park on Sega CD is among the worst kind of adventure games. I can't bash it for not learning from Myst, since the game came out the same year, before Cyan taught everyone how to make an adventure game.

Objects are scattered around in dumb places. Random objects are needed to interact with random areas. Areas you can go look like places you can't go, and areas that look like you should be able to go to are unreachable. Action sequences are unintuitive and unresponsive. Death is around every corner, and frequent death sends you back to the visitor's center, forcing you to grind through many portions of the game multiple times.

And the game is on a fucking time limit!

The transitions between nodes, and the panoramic view at each node, are cool. Ahead of their time, certainly, but the same attention to detail was not applied to the dinosaurs. The sprites are laughably childish when compared to the dinosaur sprites in, say, the Sega Genesis game.

The T-Rex sequence is maddening because Mr. Bakker gives a very specific hint as to the T-Rex's weak spot in one of the videos (the side of the snout, just under the eye). So naturally I thought the game was telling me to use the crowbar or a rock to hit the T-Rex on the side of the snout when it faces off with me. Since the T-Rex flashes her weak spot at the player several times, it made sense. It's not a hint. Turns out only a charged taser shot to the open mouth works. There is nothing to tell player that the taser--not the gas gun or the tranquilizer--is the only weapon you can use, and that it must be charged. There's nothing in the game to imply the taser can be charged at all! Why give the player clues to follow when you can just make it random.

And that damn wrench... There's nothing to indicate you can reach the backpack. Nothing to hint you have to cut the rope attached to the tree. Hell, you can't look up, so you can't see that the backpack is held up by that rope! Too many leaps of logic, not enough insights.

It's a shame, because there was good potential for an adventure game on Jurassic Park. The environment is pretty good, and the CD soundtrack is outstanding. The real nature sounds make one feel like one is actually on the island, surrounded by dangerous wildlife. Everything else sucks. It's not fun and it's not a good adventure. Glad I played it at last.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Seek the Original (abbreviated): Bedknobs and Broomsticks

Bed-knob and Broomstick (containing the books "The Magic Bed-knob," and "Bonfires and Broomsticks")
by Mary Norton

Three children, Carey, Charles, and Paul, are sent to the country to live with their aunt while their mother is doing something so important she can't look after them.

The children meet Miss Price, an elderly woman in town who has a secret. Charles, the eldest, has been watching Miss Price fly on a broom for weeks. One night she falls and hurts her ankle, and the children rush to help her. That's when Charles confronts her about witchcraft.

Miss Price is teaching herself the craft, and though she is a beginner, she can still do some impressive things. But she can't have the whole village knowing she's doing this, so she makes a pact with the children: she gives them a magical device that can transport them anywhere they want, at any time, in return for their silence. If they tell anyone Miss Price's secret, the spell will break and the object won't work.

Paul, the youngest, happens to have a knob from his bed frame with him. Miss Price enchants it, and now the children go off on wild adventures on their magic bed that can take them anywhere they want!

...or not.

What's the first place they go? Back to London to see their mother. She's away, and instead they are picked up by a police officer and have a couple chapters in a police station, followed by a one-paragraph dilemma of how to get back to the bed.

Then they travel with Miss Price to a Pacific island for a lovely evening on a tropical beach (since beaches in England are cold and dreary). The island is inhabited by stereotypical cannibals (bones through the nose, dancing around a fire, chanting, a witchdoctor--every Hollywood cliché you can think of), and they make their escape. The children return home, bed soaked with seawater and pajamas filthy. It's enough to make their aunt send the children home.

This begins the second book. The bed-knob and magic have been forgotten for 2 years, and then the children answer Miss Price's ad in the paper for lodgers. Miss Price has given up magic, but she now owns Paul's old bed, and the children ask to go on one last adventure.

Finally, at long last, the children go somewhere interesting: 1666 England! There they meet a man who is pretending to be a necromancer for money, and they are so taken by his story of a life of fraud in fortunetelling and casting fake charms that they take him to present day 1940's England to meet Miss Price.

But when they send him back home, they discover he is doomed to be burned at the stake for sorcery! Now it's up to Miss Price and the children to rescue him.

What a waste of a magical object! British children in the 1940's had no imagination! They're in possession of a magical device that can take them anywhere, any time, and they don't do anything with it! The first book is disappointing. Escaping from cannibals? That's the story? That's all they do with the magic bed, and then for two years they do nothing with the knob?

It's only in the second book that they go somewhere interesting and do something interesting for someone who you kinda feel for. The necromancer is built up to be a very sympathetic character, worth going back to the past to rescue. Afterwards, the adventures end with no possibility for a third book. Two whole books, and they barely do anything with the bed-knob, or witchcraft in general.

It's not a bad pair of books; they read very well and Miss Price and the children are active characters who drive the story forward instead of just getting lucky (I'm looking at you, Miss Bianca, Nils, Bernard!), but the entire story is so underwritten it borders on making me angry for all its unused potential.

As the spiritual successor to Mary Poppins, the 1971 movie adaptation is quite a followup. Aside from the concept, there's barely anything from the books in the movie. The movie is actually an improvement.

Miss Price and the children use the magic bed-knob to go on a quest to find the last spell Miss Price needs to learn, and then she uses this magic for a real purpose: stopping the Nazis from invading Great Britain! It's exactly what was missing from the books!

Perhaps my expectations are higher in 2015 and the books were written when adventure could be more understated, but that didn't stop Treasure Island from being full of action and danger in the 1880's! I think so much more could have been done with the idea, and the movie did everything the books did not. It has adventure, character development, danger, humor, and the magic is used for a purpose. Overall, it is the better story, and one of my favorite movies from my childhood. It's still a spectacle to this day.

Friday, October 16, 2015



The much-hyped spiritual-successor to The Neverhood. (Are we ignoring Skullmonkeys? Yes, the Neverhood did have a sequel!) Adventure games are tough to pull off, but I have to wonder if anyone on the team even played one before!

(Did you watch that intro video? I hope so, because that's all the backstory you're going to get on our main characters, Tommynaut and Beakbeak. After that, they crash land, are trapped in the fortress Armikrog., and now they must solve the puzzles contained therein to get out.)

The puzzles are indiscernible, and when they aren't, they're tedious. The story is nonexistent and even weaker than the Neverhood's was. No, I didn't have fun with it. The whole game is just a chore.

I couldn't deduce much of anything from my environment. The game throws so many meaningless symbols at you you're never sure which ones to make note of, so you have to backtrack to find them again when you learn you need one of those symbols for a puzzle!

The game breaks its own rules multiple times. Why does the octopus on the ceiling only talk to Beakbeak when he's on those little ledges and nowhere else? There is no clue that you're supposed to click on the elevator octopus while controlling Beakbeak at that particular moment, and why would you since you can't reach it?? The game only lets you interact with things within your reach EXCEPT for those parts!

Some puzzles are hidden. This one, for example, features a symbol on the wall with a button beneath. My first instinct was to try pressing the button, because buttons are interactive. Nothing happened, so I moved on. Turns out you have to click the symbol on the wall next to the button to activate the puzzle! Symbols are not interactive any other time, so why does that work here?!

So many levers to find... So many tile puzzles... So many SYMBOLS! That's pretty much all you do. Hunt for levers, slide tiles around, and hunt symbols. Many require taking detailed notes of every symbol you see, most of them are meaningless, but a few are important. If you didn't make a detailed drawing or take a good picture of that particular symbol, you may have to backtrack a looooooooong way to see it again. This happens over and over.

I am an adventure game player. I took notes of everything I saw, and I still missed a lot because so much of what you see is unused, and the stuff that is used is usually not what you expected! Every door has a symbol over it, symbols abound in every room, symbols are over every button, on the ceiling, on the walls--they're everywhere! There's only so much I'm willing to write down!

That robot puzzle! Why that pattern and none of the others?? Given that there's a space between two robot patterns, I thought the solution was to select the patterns on the dial that were between the two patterns on the wall. It seems logical, as there would be a robot etched there if not for the nest taking its place, but that's wrong. The solution is to choose the only patterns from the wall that are on the dials. Geeze, the solution is right in front of you, but good luck spotting the differences between the robot pieces, as they all look alike, which makes them almost impossible to draw for reference (not unlike the prayer bell puzzle in Schizm)! Why make a logical puzzle when you can make it tedious and arbitrary. I felt like I was being punished for thinking things through.

And the lullaby puzzles. They are so long, and you can't speed up the song, or stop the shrill crying of that damn baby, so if you mess up, you just have to listen to the whole song again and again with the crying baby in the background until you get it right. Getting it right is trial and error. No skill, no deduction.

Every puzzle is a freakin' chore, and there's no lightning mode, so backtracking is a painful trek! Eureka moments are accompanied by thoughts of "crap, now I have to go all the way back and find that symbol again!"

I played the fully-patched version, and even then it failed to save my game several times, and Beakbeak glitched out while flying, forcing me to replay large chunks of the game! Whatever happened to releasing a bug-free product the first time? Don't need to now--why bother getting something right the first time when we have the internet and can just keep patching it.

$900k dollars on Kickstarter for this? It's pretty, and the animation is gorgeous for the rare moments it happens, but that's it. We barely know who the villain is, and why he's doing all this. He's introduced and then defeated within two breaths! The Neverhood got away with these problems because the style and humor rose above its weak story and arbitrary puzzles. Skullmonkeys got away with a weak story because the platforming gameplay was otherwise good. Armikrog is so unintuitive, so tedious, and so unfunny its style can't make up for its shortcomings.

And what happened to the sound quality on the voice acting? Everyone speaks with an echo for half the game, and there's no reason for their voices to echo. It detracted from otherwise good performances. They got THE Michael J. Nelson to voice the main character, but he has maybe a page's-worth of dialogue! He's the main character, and he barely has a role. Mike is totally wasted!

Kudos to Terry S. Taylor for another great soundtrack, even if it is subdued and underused compared to the 3 games he scored for the team in the 90's; and to the artists and animators and voice actors who brought all of this to life, but the game is downright unpleasant to play. They had a lot of talented artists and animators, but apparently nobody knew how to make an adventure game or tell a story.

The backstory is poorly delivered--there's actually more background on the characters in the scrapped versions of the theme song than the theme actually used in the game! That intro song is the only identity our playable characters ever have, so if you missed any of the lyrics, you will be lost by the time the game ends! I'm still not entirely sure what happened, and I don't really care. The game is so tedious and aggravating it made me want to hurry up and get it over with.

Adventure games are supposed to be about exploration, discovering the story, and figuring out the puzzles in relation to the environment. They should be part of the story and discernible within that context. It's a hard task to pull off--just look at the sheer number of bad adventure games out there!--but wow, I haven't played an adventure game that pissed me off since Jurassic Park on Sega CD. Even Darkstar didn't make me angry!

Sorry, but I didn't enjoy Armikrog. They could have done so much more with this idea, but instead we have a lifeless, tedious game with a weak story and a distinct lack of humor and fun. There are a lot of creative people behind it, and the game took a lot of work to bring to life, but it doesn't add up to anything enjoyable.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Star Fox 64: what is all the hype about??

I discovered computer games in the mid-1990's, so I switched from my Nintendo/Genesis systems to PC gaming and never looked back. As a result, I missed the PS1/Saturn/N64 generation and everything thereafter.

I had the chance to play some of the games on those systems I missed. One game in particular I wanted to play was

What the hell is all the hype about with Star Fox 64?? I keep hearing it's the best Star Fox game--the last one before the series lost its way with Star Fox Adventures/Dinosaur Planet, but it's terrible! It's a mere remake of the SNES game, but the textured graphics somehow make the game look more primitive! The original game looks clean and crisp, like a game from the future! The N64 game looks muddy and unfocused.

Enemies are so far away you can't hit them half the time, and the homing laser feels like it was added to compensate for this flaw instead of as a new feature. The joystick constantly re-centers your targeting box, making it impossible to hold a direction or fire at anything! I miss the SNES controls. You weren't fighting them throughout the whole game!

The explosions don't feel solid. The laser doesn't feel solid. Hitting things doesn't feel solid. Getting hit doesn't feel solid. The laser doesn't do much damage, and the nova bomb doesn't do jack shit anymore either. Nothing in the game feels or moves real. Barrel-rolls don't seem to work very often either.

And the voice acting. Awful, awful, AWFUL! Every line is delivered like it was lifted out of context from random conversations heard on the street. Half the lines sound like they were taken from dirty conversations. (Andross won't have his way with me! Here comes a big one!) The laughable lip-synch makes it even stupider.

Even the music is bad. No memorable tunes, no melody, just background noise to energize the levels, not unlike what you'd expect from an arcade game.

Why remake the original game? Why not make a sequel? Hell, I read Star Fox 2 was complete; why not release it since it was done?! We could've had an actual sequel that continued the story--hell, that told a story!--but instead we got this?? What bullshit.

I also played Turok. It's fucking impossible. The controls are awful and the graphics are shit, even by the standards of the time. The N64 was an awful system! The polygon count was so low any attempt at 3D graphics was just awkward! It wasn't until the PS2/Dreamcast/Gamecube generation that developers finally figured out how to handle the camera, and the 3D graphics smoothed out. Mostly.

After trying to play a few N64 games and thinking the same thing about both the graphics and the universally awful controls, this leads me to wonder: how many actual good games were there for these systems? The NES has about 700 games for it, but how many of them are actually any good? Ditto for the SNES, and let's not forget Gameboy and Genesis. (I'm excluding the Game Gear. There were no good games for that.) By and large, the huge libraries are full of crap with a few gems here and there. So it is with the N64, PS1 and Saturn (remember Sonic R?).

Remember the gems. Ignore the crap. That's how nostalgia works.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Planet of the Apes (series)

I was curious about the Planet of the Apes series. The originals, not the remakes. This is a supplement to my Seek the Original of the first movie.

Now for the sequels:


Beneath the Planet of the Apes is so weak. Another astronaut is sent on a rescue mission to find Taylor and his crew, but the ship also crashes in the distant future. How could Earth know Taylor was in trouble; his ship hadn't reached its destination for centuries!

In the process of finding Taylor, this other astronaut finds a race of humans living underground, presumably descendants of the survivors of the nuclear war that decimated the Earth centuries ago. It's not stated or implied anywhere in the movie who they are, or what they do, so who the hell were those humans and why do they have telekinetic powers?! They worship an atomic missile, and when threatened, instead of using their mind powers, they elect to launch the missile on the apes. But that fails, leaving Taylor himself to press the button that damns them all to hell.

You can tell someone wanted to make a cold war statement and didn't know how to say it, so they repeated what politicians of the time kept saying: "we are a peaceful people" and "it's a weapon of peace." Whatever it wanted to say, it failed to say or even show. The film ends with the implied destruction of Earth. Kinda pointless, but the sets are impressive.


Escape from the Planet of the Apes is so much better. Our two favorite apes from the last two movies, Cornelius and Zira, somehow got the crashed spaceship working again, despite their civilization being pre-industry and pre-electricity, and end up back in time to 1970's Earth.

Finally we find out what happened to the human race, and how the apes rose above them. Cats and dogs all over the world will die of a plague, and apes will replace them as pets. They will be trained to do various tasks, but will eventually be enslaved, and then they will rebel against their masters. It's very close to what the original book implied--it took us 3 whole movies to reveal this critical detail!

The movie is interesting, the humor is actually funny, and I really felt for Cornelius and Zira. Especially Zira. She's outspoken and feisty, while her husband is quiet and reserved. They're perfect for each other. And Ricardo Montalbán can make any movie awesome.


Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is almost as good. The story has taken the next logical direction: in the 1980's, all the cats and dogs died of disease brought here by Cornelius and Zira, setting in motion the events that will lead up to the first film. Apes are the new pets, and crossbreeding has yielded bigger, more humanlike apes, chimpanzees and orangutans. It's actually a brilliant way to tie everything together. Caesar, Zira's and Cornelius' son, leads the revolt against their human masters.

I watched this with my roommate, and we both noticed the ending was altered. The audio quality on Caesar's second speech is different, there is no lip synch, shots are reused. His decision to show mercy on the human captors is obviously not how the movie was supposed to end. A quick glance on the internet confirmed the movie was supposed to be the last in the series, bringing the story full circle, ending with kill all humans and setting itself up to be the beginning of the first movie. Audiences weren't ready for that, so it was changed to Caesar showing mercy on the humans who oppressed them, and now the bleak future can be altered. Cowardly, but audiences were tired of race riots and assassinations and nuclear threats. They wanted to believe the future destruction of the human race was not inevitable. Be that as it may, the original ending is so much better, nullifying the need for the final movie.


Battle for the Planet of the Apes is a confused mess. It's supposed to be about peace, but it's all about a battle. Between movies 4 and 5, humans used the Bomb to try to quell the ape rebellion, destroying much of Earth. The human survivors living in the ruins are starving, angry, and heavily irradiated. The apes live on the surface, away from these forbidden zones.

Caesar and his closest aids venture into the nearby ruins of the human city to find the tapes the government made of his parents talking about the future. The humans there follow Caesar back to his settlement. A battle ensues, the humans are exterminated, a rebellious ape is killed, but somehow humans and apes live in harmony hundreds of years in the future.

It's supposed to be another "if you choose peace, you can change the future" message, but the writers didn't know how to show it. Characters keep saying it, but that's not what happens on screen. Caesar learns about the future he should avoid, but he never negotiates with the humans. He doesn't even hint of a coming dialogue with them, which is important to ending the hatred and changing the future.

It implies where the humans in the second film came from, but the fourth film was supposed to conclude the series. Audiences didn't want such a bleak ending. They wanted to believe the future can be changed, and thus we have a forced happy ending. This film was unnecessary.


I'm glad I watched the whole thing. The movies are not masterpieces, even the first one, but they are memorable. The ape makeup is still convincing today. Much like the Wizard of Oz, it's a cultural experience.

As far as I'm concerned, the series concluded with the alt ending of the fourth movie. That would have been a more powerful way to get the message across, by showing the results of making the wrong decision. Forcing Caesar to change his mind at the last second, for no apparent reason, isn't nearly as impactful.

None of the satire was in the first movie, and it was just barely hinted at in the book, but the sequels did address how man fell and why the apes rose. That's what the book should have been about, and I'm glad the movies finally did something with the idea. They actually did more with it than the book. Disjointed as it is, this makes the series as a whole better than the book in almost every way.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Seek the Original: Planet of the Apes

Planet of the Apes
by Pierre Boulle

A few scientists and a journalist (Ulysse Mérou) embark to the star Betelgeuse, traveling on a craft to just under the speed of light. They make the trip in only two years, though hundreds of years pass on the Earth they leave behind.

On Soros, the habitable planet they find, they discover it is inhabited by humans. And simians. The humans live like animals, while the apes have an advanced human civilization. Ulysse is captured and subjected to behavioral tests. Two of the others are killed, and the last loses his mind.

For months Ulysse is locked in a cage, suffering embarrassingly easy tests he's seen primates endure back on Earth. Eventually he is able to tell his warden, a chimpanzee named Zira, that he is intelligent. After learning her language and gaining both her and her fiancé's trust, he makes a speech to the high counsel, and is released from captivity. He is now free to pursue scientific research as their equal, despite him being a journalist by trade.

I guess there's nothing wrong with this story, and perhaps it was innovative for its time, but I can't help thinking Jonathan Swift did it better in Gulliver's Travels. The country of the Houyhnhnms and Yahoos was essentially the same thing: switch the human and animal, and try to expose human civilization for what it is.

Planet of the Apes is hardly original in this respect, and the first 2/3 of the book is all about Ulysse trying to convince the apes that he is intelligent as they are, and it's a drag. How does he earn his freedom? He makes a long speech to the leaders of government, and the people in attendance. Just like that, they release him from captivity and now he's a full member of ape society. No, that's way too easy. If, on Earth, a captive elephant suddenly started speaking and pleading to be accepted as one of us, there would be no way a simple speech to congress would convince everyone to let him walk among us as an equal.

The book only becomes interesting for the 20 pages we examine the origin of the ape civilization, and the fall of man's on this world. The way they learn about it is ridiculous: stimulating the brains of a pair of man-animals (sorry, I had to), the apes are able to get them to speak "species memories." Somehow memories of what happened to their civilization ten-thousand years ago are contained in these humans' minds? That's not how memory works. It's ridiculous--easily solved by finding old recordings, or movies, or diaries from the ruined city--but the information is interesting. Apparently, the apes are not intelligent at all, but simply imitating the human civilization that came before it. It left me wanting to know more about that, not Ulysse's long journey out of captivity.

It doesn't last long enough for me to call the book a good read. For as short as it is, it's hard to get through because so much of it is dull. I wanted to know more about the rise of the apes and the fall of man, how humans and apes got to the planet Soros in the first place, and it bugs me these subjects are pretty much footnotes. That's where the real satire of human society was, and it was the point where the story broke away from Swift's work and stepped out on its own. Like a toddler, it only took five steps, teetered over and fell on its diapered bottom, cried for a while and then curled up and called it a day.

It's pulpy, barely any science, and has all the tropes you'd expect of a pulp sci-fi adventure. For example, all the women are beautiful, and walk around naked. It also has a twist ending I saw coming from before the halfway mark. How did apes get to Earth? How can we ponder that when we don't even know how they got to Soros in the first place!? I didn't hate the book, but the interesting parts did not last long enough to make me like it either.

Now compare that to...

Planet of the Apes (1968)
starring Charlton Heston

This was my first time seeing this movie that I can remember. It's a classic and was quite a blockbuster for its time, but I didn't care too much for the movie either.

For starters, what's up with the music?! For the first 20 minutes, the music draws so much attention to itself. The orchestra panics several times, but nothing is happening on screen. It's as if the music is trying to compensate for what's not happening. Calm down, soundtrack, they're just climbing the rocks. (Uh oh...) Once action actually does start happening, the music finally matches the movie, and by the end it adds to the scenes instead of jumping off the screen and assaulting the audience.

Second, our main character (named Taylor in the movie. Because this is an American movie, so no Frenchmen are allowed to be important) is an asshole. He doesn't come across as a leader, but a jerk. What kind of performance were they going for here? When one of the crew makes a little memorial for Stewart, their crewmate who died in the crash that stranded them on this planet, Taylor laughs at him. His laugh doesn't sound light-hearted, but like a man who is going insane! He insults his crew every step of the way, he talks down to them--why is this guy the main character!? At least Ulysse in the book is a vulnerable everyman and you can kinda feel his pain. (Though he is overly-eloquent. The dialogue in the book sounds leftover from the Victorian era, but that may be the result of the translation from the original French.) Taylor is just a self-righteous dick.

Third, the main story is our protagonist trying to convince his ape captors that he is intelligent, just like the book.

On Rotten Tomatoes, the consensus is that this movie "raises thought-provoking questions about our culture without letting social commentary get in the way of the drama and action." What questions? What social commentary? The book had more of those than the movie, most of it narration that wouldn't be easy to show. The book doesn't do too much with it, but it's still there. I don't find any of that in the film.

It gives a lot of hints as to the origin of apekind, and the third act shows some evidence of it, but this isn't the focus of the movie. Instead, the movie puts Taylor on trial, and it wastes so much time debating the obvious instead of exploring the more interesting idea.

We all know the ending. It's the most parodied scene in cinema history. Taylor rides up the beach and finds the ruins of the Statue of Liberty, so he was on Earth the whole time. Ape civilization rose out of the ruins of his own.

But wait... The astronauts left Earth. They were traveling at the speed of light--they were already hundreds of light years away from Earth at the start of the film, and over 2,000 years had passed by the end of their journey. How did they get back to Earth?! The book's ending makes more sense, even with the unanswered questions. The movie's ending is a twist for the sake of a twist.

There's all this talk about how the apes must protect the faith, how Taylor is a threat to their civilization, despite his assertions that he is from another planet and thus not related to events on their world at all. What faith? How is he a threat to them? Taylor himself asks this, and no answer is given.

In the book, Ulysse and his ape colleagues uncover an ancient city of humans who were even more advanced than the apes, and Ulysse puts the pieces together: the present ape society is merely imitating the ancient human society, and each generation has taught the next for thousands of years. It explains why nobody innovates, why nothing has changed in centuries, why things work the way they do. It is all they have been doing, and it implies they are not intelligent at all. This knowledge is what must be covered up, and why Ulysse is such a threat to their social order.

The movie doesn't explain this at all. In fact, the apes in the movie believe they were divinely created. Not so in the book; they know they evolved from something, but they don't see their civilization for what it is. It's interesting stuff, and it's what both the movie and the book should have focused on. This is the satire--this is the social commentary!--but instead they both waste so much time being about Ulysse's and Taylor's escape from bondage.

Had the movie drawn more attention to the nature of ape civilization, perhaps the twist ending would have had more weight, but it still doesn't make sense. How did man's civilization end? How did apes survive, and nothing else? There's no attention to these questions. Perhaps the reason was more obvious in the 60's. During the height of the Cold War, the very idea that we could destroy ourselves, and someone else would rise up to take our place, was an idea that stood on its own. Nobody needed to know how mankind destroyed itself; it was obvious somebody used the Bomb.

That's fine, but the movie isn't about that. It's about our main character trying to persuade his ape captors that he is a thinking person just like they are, and he's such an arrogant jerk before his captivity I didn't want him to be free. I wanted the movie to be about the rise of ape civilization and the fall of whatever came before. It isn't, and for this reason I prefer the book over the film, because the book answered some of these questions directly, which was interesting, even if it wasn't enough.


From a filmmaking perspective, the ape makeup is amazing. It's pretty convincing, even today, and must have cost a fortune. The sets are large and do a great job standing in for an entire civilization. The music is terrible, and is a huge distraction from most of the movie.

It's a classic of filmmaking. I respect that. I recall the subsequent sequels (remember those? This was a freakin' franchise in the 70's!) delved deeper into the ape civilization, and also into what happened to man's. People in the 60's wanted to know more, too.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Space Jam 2: Friendship is Magic

The rumors are flying that Space Jam 2 is happening. Since there is no reason why not, and Hollywood continues to milk the nostalgia cow, I'd say it's inevitable.

How can Space Jam 2 best capture the spirit of the original? The first Space Jam was a time capsule of everything that was popular in the 90's, so the new one should be a time capsule of everything that's popular in 2015. To wit, here is my speculative script treatment for how the new movie should go down.

"Space Jam 2: Friendship is Magic"
By James L. Steele

The Loony Tunes are not cool anymore. Instead, I recommend replacing all Loony Tunes with MY LITTLE PONY: FRIENDSHIP IS MAGIC characters.

(You're humming the theme song right now. Just admit it.)


We open on the same ALIEN PLANET featured in the original film. Reality TV is all the rage. (Show WALL OF MONITORS broadcasting every reality TV series ever made to all corners of the galaxy.) These aliens created the genre to conquer the galaxy, and they have succeeded.

Ratings are good, profits are through the roof, but it's not enough for the executives and investors. To get even more viewers, MR. SWACKHAMMER (the boss alien from the first film) decides to capture this generation's most popular cartoon characters and force them to star in a reality TV series.

Cut to EQUESTRIA, daytime.

TWILIGHT SPARKLE, RARITY, APPLEJACK, PINKIE PIE, RAINBOW DASH, and FLUTTERSHY are doing their usual pony activities. Alien HENCHMEN secretly land, observe, and then capture our main characters. (SPIKE is optional.)

The ponies are transported back to the alien planet and dumped into the office, where Swackhammer pitches the new reality TV series to them, for which they have been cast: a camera crew is to follow them around as they try to win places on other reality TV shows.

Having no choice, the ponies go along with it, trying out for several shows in multiple animated worlds, frequently doing interview cutaways. They are forced to bicker and backstab each other for the hungry TV audience (show the HUNGRY TV AUDIENCE craving DRAMA and CONFLICT).

They are also told to be as bad as possible. Any attempts at being good at any of the shows they try out for are met with outrage from their aliens captors, saying it looks better for the cameras if they suck at everything they try. The girls have to oblige.

Meanwhile, in the real world, LEBRON JAMES has just begun a reality series of his own. (Possible titles include: NBA SHOWDOWN; THE RECRUITS; NBA ULTIMATE DREAM CHALLENGE.) The NBA recruits new players through a reality TV series now. Every season, they hold open tryouts, and then the contestants have to achieve ordinary basketball-related challenges in ridiculously small time limits with outrageously bizarre restrictions on equipment and location; and must please judges and survive vote-offs and sabotages on top of all that. All the while, the prospective pro-basketball players are compelled to backstab and bicker with one another during the contests as well as between. (Show the HUNGRY TV AUDIENCE craving DRAMA and CONFLICT again.)


Twilight Sparkle hears one of the alien producers talking with his superior about their plan to keep the series going for 10 years: they want the ponies to perpetually try out for reality TV shows, but never actually earn a place on one. Twilight sees a way to use this to escape. She tells the girls they must actually win a place on a show. She persuades the camera crew into letting the ponies try out for Lebron's reality TV series in the real world, figuring basketball should be easy for them.

They actually secure a place on the show. The aliens did not expect this--the contract they made the ponies sign does not have any provisions for what happens in this case, so the aliens scramble to come up with a solution. The ponies use the opportunity. Hearing of their plight, Lebron convinces his lawyer (can we get WAYNE KNIGHT again?) to write it in their contract that if the ponies win, they sign an NBA player's contract and are released from the alien's contract at the same time.


It is up to Lebron to coach them through the difficult challenges and win a place in the NBA. However, now there are two different TV series producers trying to turn the ponies against one another, and disharmony threatens to tear their friendship apart. (Show the various INTERVIEWS and dramatic BEHIND THE SCENES BICKERING. Also show the HUNGRY TV AUDIENCE feeding off it.)

Meanwhile, the aliens send the henchmen down to possess some of the other contestants, boosting their basketball skills to make it harder for the ponies to win. By the time the trick is revealed, it's too late. The girls will need all the help they can get if they hope to compete with these new, supertalented players and go home again. Lebron James is just the person.

Along the way, they learn the true meaning of friendship (show the MAGIC of FRIENDSHIP) and teamwork. Together, they overcome the obstacles, win the contest, survive the sabotages, please the judges, survive the FINAL BASKETBALL TOURNAMENT (with Lebron himself playing on their side), make it through the DRAMATIC VOTING ROUND, and are released from their alien contract. The ponies return home, friends once again.

When the episodes for Lebron's show air, the ratings shatter records, and the producers want the ponies back. In Equestria, the ponies realize they are now contracted NBA players, and must report for season games soon. They are eager to start. It sounds like fun! (Sequel cliffhanger!)

CREDITS MUSIC: a rap/dubstep/boyband version of the MLP:FiM theme that will never be dated.

Creative notes:

All characters should say "literally" at least once per three lines. "Seriously" should be used at least once per five lines.

Starbucks should sponsor the whole film. Nothing but Starbucks ads all over the place.

John de Lancie should have a cameo in this film, either as Discord, or as a human character.

The entire voice cast from MLP:FiM should also have cameos as humans to give the film rewatch value.

For the stadium scenes where an audience is present, all spectators should be playing on their phones.

When the contestants are talking to each other, they should be texting on their phones while bickering and arguing and backstabbing one another. Likewise for the interview sections.

Keep Michael Jordan as far away from this movie as possible. Only CURRENTLY popular icons of awesomeness are allowed here.

Consider using the real-life Lebron James to play himself. Using a computer animated double might look more realistic, and the performance might be better, but we must strive for authenticity. That's why the first movie did not animate Jordan, so we should not animate Lebron.


I would love to write this story, but due to the subject matter being so current, it will be outdated before I can finish it. Unless I write it in less than a week, which is presumably about as long as it took the screenwriters to complete the first movie.

ATTENTION HOLLYWOOD: if you like this idea, feel free to use it, but remember this spec is © 2015 James L. Steele. All rights are reserved. If you want to use this treatment, I only ask for a small fortune in return.