Monday, November 29, 2010
The Andromeda Strain, Alien, War of the Worlds, and countless others. Many more have explored the even less likely possibility of entire races of intelligent beings, focusing on their foreign technologies, cultures, and languages. Given the obviously much longer evolutionary time frame it would take for any type of intelligent life form to emerge in our universe, the opportunities for the biological substrate upon which this intelligence eventually sits to deviate from our own would be more numerous than any non-intelligent form of life by comparison. What I am trying to say is that if two intelligent races have absolutely no connection or commonality of origin prior to their first encounter, logic dictates that the biological makeup of these two races should be more different from each other than the two most radically differing creatures one might find on our own planet. This is why it is so ridiculous to see so many alien races depicted in sci-fi films and TV serials looking like slightly modified human beings. This entry, after that long introduction, is dedicated to the impossible ubiquity of humanoid aliens.
Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, the alien races were not much more than people with fancy wardrobes.
Outer Limits and Star Trek, as well as the various monster films of the decade. But even if we excuse the early film and television sci-fi for insufficient technology or budgets, this would not explain the persistence of these humanoid aliens up to the present day. I believe there is a much more subtle explanation, and it has more to do with artistic laziness than anything else.
Star Wars as a modern example of this phenomenon since it spans several more recent decades, but then I realized it is really an anomaly. You see, Star Wars claims to take place in a completely different galaxy where you would expect every living creature to look nothing like an earth being, yet all the most important characters look exactly like us, and most of the others are close cousins. The obvious assumption one must make is that artistic license is being used to portray the main cast like ourselves so we can relate to them, including things like their emotional makeup and sense of humor, etc. But this breaks down when you see, mixed in with the human-like cast, all manner of alien beings with very different biological forms, including the intelligent ones! Certainly Yoda is a central character, as is Chewbacca, and Jabba the Hut has an even less human-like form, even though the behavior of the aforementioned characters is still quite human. I suppose you could characterize this as artistic license at best, or else as arbitrary, or worse still, schizophrenic.
So lets pick some of the more recent television series like Bablylon 5 and Star Trek (pick your spinoff). In all of these, various episodes will center around intelligent life forms that differ greatly from life on earth, which often constitutes the main point of the story. However, all of them have regular cast members that are aliens which look like modified humans. Klingons, Romulans, Narn, and Centauri; All of them very human like in form and especially so in psychological makeup. The one more striking exception being the Vorlons, which not only hide their form behind a cloak and communicate with musical sounds, but also seem to be more other-worldly in their manner, beliefs, and customs. Why are the regular cast so much like us? I believe the main reason is simply convenience. The easiest way to get an audience to relate to a main character is through mental and emotional connection, and so any type of intelligent interaction needs to hit close to home. This extends to the character's facial expressions and body language, which is most easily interpretable if they use the same expressions and body language as our own, and that implies a similar looking face and body. And this of course allows the actors not to work as hard at portraying the characters. Trying to weave an effective story without these tools takes a lot of extra thought that is less important than the day to day drama upon which most serials thrive. If my theory is correct, it means humanoid aliens are here to stay, despite their unlikely existence.
The Paradise Syndrome. In the beginning, the crew discover a planet with a culture exactly like early Native Americans, and the flora and fauna look exactly like earth as well. They comment on the striking resemblance right in the beginning. Near the end, Spock discovers the people were relocated there from Earth by a group of ancient beings called the Preservers, who supposedly went around relocating groups of less advanced people/aliens deemed unable to survive on their own planet. It is Dr. McCoy who makes the key observation: "I've always wondered why there were so many humanoids scattered throughout the galaxy". Aside from being an interesting case of political correctness way before its time, it is a rather far-fetched invention by the writers to explain such a hugely important detail in one fell swoop. However, it is certainly not as distasteful as the ridiculous explanation attempted by Star Trek: TNG. In one episode, they receive a message from some ancient alien race which produces an apparition in the form of a basic humanoid-shaped being. It tells an audience of various races that the reason they all look alike is that their DNA was seeded by this original race throughout the galaxy aeons ago and they've finally become mature enough to be informed about their mutual brotherhood. To top it off, the message was supposedly hidden all these years in our DNA code. Ugh! I try to pretend that episode never happened.
Posted by Ray Virzi at 12:29 AM
Wednesday, November 10, 2010
Today my mother is retired, my father and one brother are no longer with us, and more of us kids are married or live farther away. So although Thanksgiving is still celebrated, the movie tradition has ended due to mere logistics. But it was on one of these holiday outings in 1989 that we decided to simply go to a nearby single screen theater and just watch whatever was playing that day. It was an underwater science fiction film that none of us had heard of called The Abyss. It turned out to be a film that would leave such an impression on me that I would remember it vividly for years afterward along with the odd circumstances under which I had discovered it.
The Abyss was both written and directed by James Cameron, half way between his first two Terminator movies, and 3 years after Aliens. Given the quality of the film and the reputation of its creator, I am still amazed at how little attention it ever got. One thing I share with Cameron is a love for the ocean and its underwater inhabitants. As a lifelong swimmer and now scuba diver, I have always loved to watch underwater filming. This movie takes place almost entirely beneath the ocean. It is definitely a Cameron film. What do I mean? For one, it is long (e.g. Titanic). It's original run time of 3 hours had to be cut back to 2 1/2 hours for the studios. Second, it contains lessons about the errors of mankind (e.g. Avatar, Terminator), the evidence of which was completely cut out for the theatrical version. Third, it is a well crafted story that is masterfully told. Fourth, it contains lots of suspense to keep you on the edge of your seat. Fifth, it had phenomenal sets (e.g. Titanic). Sixth, it pushed the envelope of film and special effects technology for its day (e.g. all of the above). Do I rest my case? It also contains several difficulties in the credibility department which is always one of the big weak spots in Cameron's sci-fi ventures.
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HPNS (high pressure nervous syndrome). Although this is mentioned in the film, only one character falls victim to it while the others go weeks without a single symptom. At the end, Bud is supposed to dive to depths in excess of 17,000 feet and experience no more than temporary disorientation! I'm sure at that depth he'd be toast in no time, even if he was breathing liquid. A more serious problem is that you can't actually breathe air at that hyperbaric pressure due to oxygen and nitrogen toxicity, so the air in the cabins would have to be mixed with a careful balance of low oxygen and helium or other substitutes. This can be achieved with a controlled feed from a tank, but to achieve it in an entire cabin may prove impossible as the gases would separate. Also, if the pressure in the cabins and subs is the same as the surrounding water, then leaks would present a slightly lesser problem than depicted in the movie because the water would only rise to the level of the leak, not fill the cabin like in a submarine.
breathe liquid instead, the compression problem goes away. There is an actual demonstration in the film of a rat breathing this hyper-oxygenated fluid, but it has only been tried on humans in clinical settings where a pump is used to aid the breathing process. A big problem is that there is no easy way to expel the carbon dioxide back out of the lungs without the assistance of a machine. So the free breathing of the fluid shown in the film is probably not realistic. It's a really neat idea though.
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ROV's (remote operated vehicles) were incorporated into the plot and featured frequently. Submersibles and other more difficult shots were done with miniatures that somehow had live action film seamlessly integrated so it appeared like you were looking at real people inside the craft from the water outside.
ILM operation provided some very beautiful CGI renderings of the NTI's, which stands for non-terrestrial intelligence. This was a central part of the plot and another very original idea to add to the annals of science fiction. I don't know of any other film that was built around the idea of an intelligent race of beings that evolved in parallel with humans on earth but never made contact because they live exclusively in the unexplored regions of deep ocean trenches. Their technology is based on the control of water, which is also quite a stretch. Cameron takes great liberty with the idea that aliens are allowed to magically perform whatever impossible feats the story requires. There is one scene where the aliens supposedly investigate the rig using a column of water that can suspend in mid air and bend around corners. It is a touching moment and looks really cool, but that's about it.
I watched it again in order to do this review and I have to admit that the impact is not nearly as powerful when you actually know what is going to happen next, but it is still an enjoyable film which, despite the scientific challenges, has enough heart and originality to find a place in the annals of science fiction.
Posted by Ray Virzi at 11:29 PM