Monday, November 29, 2010

Human Or Alien?

One of the more common speculations that occurs in science fiction is not just whether life exists on other planets, but if it did, what on earth (pardon the pun) would it look like? If we assume that such life forms evolved independently, we would no doubt expect them to be so foreign and in fact, unexpected, that they would truly fit the meaning of the term "alien". The reason, of course, is that life on our planet, when we discover new forms, constantly surprises us with its strangeness, even though it is all based on the same basic chemistry and DNA-based machinery. Thus, life forms that arose in a completely different environment than that of earth would surely be even more foreign that what we find on this planet, incredible as it is.

Many classic sci-fi stories have explored the idea of the nature of alien life as a central theme, such as 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.

Now I realize that there is a practical reason for this resemblance of alien characters to us, at least on film, which is simply that it is much cheaper to dress up a person in a suit than to attempt something more difficult and costly, and probably even less convincing. In the earliest films, like Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, the alien races were not much more than people with fancy wardrobes.
In the sixties, Hollywood's makeup skills improved enough so that they could try putting people in crazy looking suits. There are numerous examples of this in various TV series like 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.

I first thought to use 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.

Once in a while, a serial will attempt to explain this commonality among the races. In the the original Star Trek series, it happens in one of the early episodes of season 3, and one of my own favorites, called 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.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Abyss

My family at some point acquired an informal Thanksgiving Day tradition back when most of us (5 out of 7) were still young and single. My mother would invite us over for a fully loaded turkey lunch. Yes, it was a lunch because she somehow always had to work on Thanksgiving Day and would be out of the house by two o'clock. Nurses were needed every day of the year, and I think this was a tradeoff designed to free up Christmas Eve. We feasted on turkey, yams, potatoes, and many other delicious contributions, and after chatting for hours and digging in to the pies and desserts later in the afternoon, the married siblings would leave around 4 to 5 o'clock and head to the in-laws for Thanksgiving dinner. The rest of us would then start voting on what movie to go see. With Mom gone it certainly was not rude of us to leave, and the theaters were all open and barely occupied. It was the only time in the year we all got to go to the movies together. There were even some years that Dad came along too.

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.

======================[mild spoilers here]======================

There are several advanced underwater technologies that were explored in the story. The first is the idea of a submersible oil rig. The rig resides at the bottom of the ocean under 2000 feet of water. It has sealed control rooms and living compartments. It can be unhooked and towed at hover distance from the bottom with a small deep sea submersible in order to change drilling locations. Since it supposedly takes 3 weeks to depressurize at that depth, the only way to allow open dive operations is to keep the air pressure in the rig at the same pressure as the surrounding water. This is the first big credibility issue. The deepest open air dive on record is not much past 1000 feet, and the subject experienced severe 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.

Another experimental technology which is part reality is using hyper-oxygenated fluid to allow deeper dives without a hard suit. High pressure compresses the air in the lungs, making it impossible to breathe at excessive depths. If you could 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.

=====================[more spoiler stuff]========================

The production of the film must have been a complete nightmare, and such has been admitted by director, cast, and crew. The dive shots were all actually filmed in a flooded grain silo with the set built into it. Actual 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.
And the famous 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.

Seeing the film for the first time is quite an experience as there are so many scenes involving heart stopping suspense. There is tension between the oil rig crew and the navy seal team sent down to assist the rescue operation which involves an armed nuclear warhead and a paranoid team leader made so by an HPNS affliction. An example of the crazy pace is when a hurricane develops at the surface and the underwater crew need to unhook the cable to the topside ocean liner so it can leave. This requires an external operation with the mini-sub, but the seal team has taken the sub for a secret mission and so they don't get to the cable in time. The storm drags the ship liner off position and the attached rig begins sliding toward the bottomless trench they are parked next to. Before this problem develops further, the tension in the cable causes the crane up top to break off in a spectacular crash scene. The rig below is warned that the huge crane is coming down toward them. We see the thick cable outside the rig window coiling as more of it hits the bottom and the crane gets closer. It is a very effective moment of suspense as the camera remains in the cabin with the crew during the entire brace for impact. The crane narrowly misses the rig when it hits, but while the crew is still cheering, the crane slowly falls over the edge of the trench, and we now see the cable following it down, still attached to rig. You barely have time to breathe, so to speak.

Probably the most unique feeling I came away with was an intense sense of claustrophobia achieved by some great direction. Cameron makes sure you don't get to see the surface for most of the film. You get a real palpable feel for what it is like to actually have to work under 2000 feet of water for days on end. Many scenes involve people diving through narrow compartments, getting trapped in rooms filling up fast with water, and you can usually hear the characters breathing, or trying to. This, I believe, is one of the more remarkable achievements of the film. Given the cold war time frame, part of the plot also depends on a Russian scare and concern that our nuclear sub technology is subject to espionage. Ironically, the Cold War Era came to an abrupt end just a few months after the film's release as the Berlin wall crumbled. It is amusing to see the U.S.S.R. portrayed in 1994, 5 years after it was in fact dismantled. There is a cheesy but convincingly told love connection between the two married main characters who go from the brink of divorce to finding their groove again. Ed Harris is a good fit for the part and plays it well. And the musical score is also quite lovely. With all that and more packed in, what more could you want?

I do remember viewing the director's cut of the film sometime much later and I believe it does provide a little more depth, however, it still does not fix the most serious flaw, which is the abrupt ending in which the aliens magically make everything all better. That ending does, however, have the effect of making you breathe easier as the entire cast finally breaches the surface. And I have to mention one other disappointing flaw, which is that we see absolutely no living creatures in the water for the entire film, other than the CGI beings. That, of course, would be too much to ask technically for that time, but all deep sea footage in the real world is teeming with the most interesting creatures on the planet. Such a shame.

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.