Monthly Archives: July 2012

Dungeons & Dragons – “This is no game”

Last week, I talked about dragons. This week, I’m adding dungeons to the mix. That’s right – I’m discussing Dungeons & Dragons.

Dungeons & Dragons is, in many ways, a combination of all fantasy movie clichés rolled into one great big ball of “what the hell?”. Queen Amidala is trying to bring peace and order to the planet Naboo, but the Trade Federation, spurred on by Senator Palpatine’s manipulations of the Imperial Senate, moves to forcibly overthrow her rule.

Left – Queen Amidala; right – Senator Palpatine

…Wait a minute… That’s not right…

Dang. You know what? I was thinking of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. I’m not sure why I’d do that, except that THEY’RE EXACTLY THE SAME MOVIE. Dungeons & Dragons tells the story of Ridley Freeborn (Justin Whalin, Dorm Daze 2; Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman) and his sidekick Snails (Marlon Wayans, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra; Scary Movie), two unassuming thieves who get dragged into a political storm when Profion (Jeremy Irons, The Borgias; The Lion King) pits the advisors of the kingdom against Empress Savina (Thora Birch, American Beauty; Patriot Games) in an attempt to gain ultimate power for himself.

Top left – Ridley; top right – Snails; bottom left – Empress Savina; bottom right – Profion

The parallels between the movies certainly don’t stop there. Profion has his own trusted lieutenant in Damodar (Bruce Payne, Dungeons & Dragons: Wrath of the Dragon God; Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire), an unmistakable mirror of Darth Maul (though decidedly less awesome than the Darth). At one point, it is explained that elves “are part of magic, as are all living creatures”, sounding suspiciously like the ephemeral Force. There’s even a fight scene at the end of the movie featuring lightsabers… I mean swords. Glowy swords. A red glowy sword and a blue glowy sword. Let’s face it, THEY’RE THE SAME FRICKIN’ MOVIE!

Left – Darth Maul; right – Damodar. No, wait – left is Darth Dam, right is Maulodar. No, that’s not right either…


This sword fighting scene is entirely original in every way ever

So what else do we find? For a start, there’s the perpetuation of the sexy librarian trope. Marina Pretensa (Zoe McLellan, Dirty Sexy Money; JAG) starts out the movie as one of the privileged mages, a student in the magic school. When we first see her, she is assisting her mentor in the school’s library, hair all done up in a bun, complete with nerdy-looking glasses (think Evelyn Carnahan, Rachel Weisz’s character in The Mummy, at the beginning of the movie, before all the adventures). As the movie progresses, she loses her glasses (but somehow doesn’t seem to notice or care), her hair becomes disheveled, and her overall look becomes more and more relatable and less arrogant and aloof. Because clearly, she was just waiting for an excuse to leave behind the shy and useless girl she was and start showing the… still timid and useless woman she becomes. Rarely does a movie have a female lead that is quite as useless during movie events as this one. She manages to save Ridley once, despite being a mage, compared with the three times she gets captured and needs rescuing.

Marina; note the change in appearance as the movie goes on (earliest at top left, latest at bottom)

Then there’s the portrayal of evil in this movie. Dungeons and Dragons (the game) is not necessarily known for subtlety (more on that below), but this movie, to my mind, goes so far trying to depict evil that the villains leave behind all (or most) of their sinisterness and enter the realm of laughable caricatures. Profion is the quintessential mad scientist of the fantasy world, spending the entire movie (minus his scenes in front of the advisors) with a wild, manic look on his face, yelling at everyone and planning to either conquer the world or destroy it. Meanwhile, Damodar is given the opposite cliché, being soft-spoken and deliberate in everything he says, clearly dictating and enunciating every. Last. Word. He also wears armor that screams menace, has a shaved head (in movies, rarely a sign of a friendly man), abstains from facial expressions of any sort other than pain, and for some reason, spends the whole movie with blue lips.

He’s also got these things in his head. Eeugh!

A perfectly sane and rational expression

Finally, there’s the trope of the antihero with a heart of gold. Ridley presents himself as a thief out for no one but himself (and Snails, of course), but as soon as he’s faced with the consequences of failing to help Marina and the Empress, he betrays that nature, stopping at nothing to make sure Marina stays safe and Profion’s plans get thwarted. And of course, he has a special destiny about which he’s unaware, because what hero doesn’t these days?

“Now, should I use this to get rich or to get laid?… Why not both?!”

On to the standards. The CGI was above average, though it definitely missed once or twice. Considering that this is not a SyFy Channel movie, the CGI was at least as good as expected. Sadly, despite involving a number of well-known actors (besides those mentioned, it also has Lee Arenberg, of Once Upon a Time and Pirates of the Caribbean et al fame), the acting was not this movie’s strong point. The writing was passable but nothing special (though it was refreshing to see overall decent line delivery for a change). The music was suitably epic, but again, nothing remarkable. Overall, this was somewhat better than most movies I review (as expected) but definitely worse than the vast majority of medium-budget studio releases.

A miss and a sort-of hit, plus the best the CGI gets with those ear things. Eeugh!

Lee Arenberg as Elwood Gutworthy, wondering why he’s in this thing

So what did this movie do well?

As many of you know, I am a huge nerd and an enormous geek (if you didn’t know that, just read… well, pretty much any of my blog entries). Dungeons and Dragons (the game) holds a special place in my heart, including some very good memories from my childhood. I know that the stereotype of D&D is socially awkward teenage boys sitting around in a basement rolling dice, and while that stereotype is not without basis (to be fair, we often used the dining room table), D&D in its best incarnation is so much more than that. I find it interesting that, in our society, gamers (of all stripes) are often derided as living in a fantasy world (and yes, this is much less true today than it was, say, ten or twelve years ago, but even today some of my good friends have difficulty understanding why I play computer games), while authors are celebrated, at least nominally. I’m not trying to imply, of course, that writers don’t deserve appreciation and recognition, as I’ve tried writing stories from time to time, and it is nothing resembling easy. However, the point I want to make here is that D&D, in its best interpretation, is a form of collaborative storytelling. All the players, both character players and dungeon master (the person who provides the setting and obstacles to be overcome), work together to create and develop a world that can be as rich and detailed and interesting as any best-selling novel. The main difference is that the story in D&D is written by several people, not just one.

“Several people, you say? Tell me more!”

The point of all this is that, to my mind, the Dungeons & Dragons movie captured this feeling very well, although certainly not perfectly. But the characters in the movie made meaningful choices that affected the outcome of the overall plot in significant ways, which is just as it should be in a good D&D game. The writers had a certain lack of imagination, of course (Ridley and Co. are trying to find the Scepter of Red Dragon Control, which involves bringing the Eye of the Dragon to the Temple of the Dragon, for instance), but having been in the position of creating a D&D adventure, I’m willing to forgive them for it, given the justice they did to the spirit of the game. So while the technical aspects left quite a bit to be desired, the essence of the movie was definitely well-conceived and interpreted.

So, I guess one of these controls dragons, and the other helps them see? Or maybe fits inside them? And there’s a temple somewhere?…

Finally, since this is Jumping Sharks, and I do try to make a point of looking at science stuff, I will bring up the one science thing I noticed. At the beginning of the movie, Profion is trying to create his own dragon-controlling scepter, but fails, resulting in him killing the dragon he had hoped to control. When its blood reaches a pool of nearby water, the water ignites, lighting up the entire river in the city. Ridley notices this, and asks Snails when was the last time he saw a river catch on fire. However, something that seems so impossible is actually not so! For instance, the Cuyahoga River, in Ohio, is probably best known for lighting on fire multiple times throughout history, most notably in 1969, a fire which resulted in passage of a multitude of clean water legislation, among other things. Additionally, some metals are so reactive in their non-ionized state that simply by placing them in water, they ignite (I’m looking at you, Lithium and Sodium!). To be fair, the water itself is not burning, but rather certain materials in the water; however, the point is that flame on top of water is not impossible.

Once more, just ’cause. Eeugh!

So that’s that. Stayed tuned for the second Dungeons & Dragons movie later this week and remember – shark week is coming!

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Dragon Fighter – “It came from the past, to destroy the future”

Who doesn’t love dragons? They can be good guys; bad guys; pets; and they’re basically the sharks of the air. Sharks who breathe fire. And have legs. With claws. But I digress. The point is, dragons are awesome. This movie, on the other hand…

Dragon Fighter is not at all what you’d expect, most likely. Capt. David Carver (Dean Cain, Maneater; Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman) is assigned as head of security for a top-secret research lab in southern California. The team, led by Dr. Ian Drackovitch (Robert Zachar, Python 2; Star Trek: First Contact), includes Dr. Meredith Winter (Kristine Byers, Dragon Fighter; Spring Break Lawyer) and various expendables, all tasked with returning species from extinction when that extinction was caused by humans. The “good” Dr. Drackovitch brings a new specimen to the lab, claiming it is the remains of what appears to be a dinosaur relative, remains which are dated only back to 12th Century England instead of the extinction event that killed all the rest (estimated to have occurred about 65 million years ago). Naturally, he insists that his team clone and hatch the find, despite David’s suggestion that it could, in fact, be a dragon. It does, in fact, turn out to be a dragon, which then does, in fact, go on a rampage throughout the facility, causing all manner of dragony mayhem.

Top left – Capt. David Carver; top right – Dr. Ian Drackovitch; middle left – Dr. Meredith Winter; middle right – dragony mayhem, not to be confused with Mr. Mayhem (bottom)

So what did this movie have? Well, it had better than average CGI for most of it (there’s some pretty awful stuff at the beginning, but the rest is decent), but worse than average acting (“average”, here, referring to the SyFy standard). The writing was passable, but definitely seemed to jump around in places, an issue accentuated by often-stilted line delivery. But the music was good, overall. Also, much of the movie was shot in a way reminiscent of Alien, which to my mind is always a good thing. The strangest artistic choices, however, were the copious use of split screens and the scene transitions that were made to look like security camera footage. Both of these were used extensively throughout the movie, and while there were occasional moments where one scene transitioned to another through a camera feed someone was watching, more often than not they made no sense and detracted from the flow of the movie. There were also computer dossiers that came up when certain characters were introduced, again being completely unnecessary, and kind of jarring to see, as they didn’t fit in with any of the action before or after.

Early dragon…

…and later dragon…

…and I swear, it was almost an hour and half of this…

…and this

This one also had clichés, as expected, the most obvious two being the I’m-a-scientist-so-your-thoughts-don’t-matter cliché, and the I’m-gonna-be-famous-consequences-be-damned cliché. As you might have guessed, both of these were embodied in Dr. Drackovitch, who spends the better part of the first half of the movie sneering at David and deriding him every chance he gets, and the better part of the second half of the movie sabotaging every effort to escape or kill the dragon. Interestingly, although Ian insults David’s intelligence and assumed lack of education or scientific insight, he ends up sharing David’s suspicion that the sample he brought is indeed a dragon, and it is later revealed that Ian spent an unknown but presumably lengthy portion of his life looking for proof of the existence of dragons. And while it isn’t explored at any length in this movie, the debate between making history and moral responsibility is briefly brought up, heavily biased towards the moral responsibility of prevent the escape of the dragon into the world. On a side note, much though I appreciate the sentiment of debates of this nature, part of me wishes that these movies would realize that their audience is not watching them for academic philosophical challenges to their worldview; we’re watching these movie because they have dragons (or Mongolian death worms, or homicidal ghosts, or enterprising aliens, or…). Not every movie that gets made needs to have a deep and profound meaning and impact on the world; in fact, most of them don’t. Take pride in what you are, B horror movies, and leave it at that.

“In Mother Russia, movie critique YOU!”

Most importantly, what this movie had was science, and not just any science, but my own personal favorite branch of science, genetics (via cloning, in this case).

We all remember back when it was this big thing that they found this mosquito fossilized in amber, and pretty soon there were dinosaurs everywhere thanks to cloning. Right? I mean, that did actually happen, didn’t it? Yeah, I’m pretty sure it did. Anyway, this movie is kinda like that, only much less awesome. Like I mentioned above, Dr. Drackovitch brings a dragon egg to the lab, from which two intact cells are recovered and combined to make a dragon zygote, which then divides and becomes what appears to be a full-grown dragon within a matter of hours. In the most basic of senses, this actually is what happens during the cloning process – the nucleus of one cell is removed and inserted into another cell, then the new combination is stimulated to divide.

“Damn it feels good to be a scientist!”

However. (There’s always one of these in here, isn’t there…)

“Not if I crush all dissent!”

After an organism dies, its body immediately begins to be broken down by various bacteria, insects, or other scavengers. More significantly for the movie, DNA begins to degrade through natural cellular processes (see here or here for broader studies, or here for an in-depth look at the chemistry of DNA degradation). What this means is that finding any DNA can be a tricky thing when looking at specimens past a certain age (though to be fair, not too long ago, DNA was extracted from bird eggs up to 19,000 years old). But here’s the key – for the cloning process to work, the donor nucleus (or, in this case, nuclei) needs to be complete; some limited amount of damage to the DNA might be overcome, but large-scale degradation would absolutely pose a problem. And while the entire genome of an organism can be deduced by examining DNA fragments from many sources, the movie scientists manage to find two completely intact nuclei and fuse them together. I’m not great at statistics, but I’m pretty comfortable saying that this is pretty much impossible to do in a specimen that’s 1000 years old, especially considering that the movie specifically says that the DNA from each cell is undamaged and intact.

“Who’s a good cloned puppy? WHO’S a good cloned puppy? You are! Yes you are!”

Since I’m a genetics nerd, I’m going to digress for a moment and discuss somatic-cell nuclear transfer (cloning) in more detail as it relates to the movie. “Cloning”, in the colloquial sense, involves taking the nucleus out of an egg cell and discarding it, and then inserting the diploid nucleus of a second cell into the “empty” egg cell (I should point out that, while vertebrates are predominantly diploid, there are a number of species known to be polyploid, including some reptiles). For the sake of discussion, I am assuming that dragons are diploid animals. What this means, then, is that combining two somatic nuclei in one cell and then causing the cell to divide would most likely either create two new somatic cells from the original tetraploid cell, or result in a permanently tetraploid animal. This latter situation would most likely be fatal (though it’s certainly not guaranteed to be so), and the former situation would, at best, probably lead to a growth of a specific dragon cell type. Either way, the method shown in the movie would all but definitely not lead to a viable, fully differentiated baby dragon.

Who’s an impossible genetic freak? WHO’S an impossible genetic freak? You are! Yes you are!

But however they did it, they created a dragon. Which turned out to want to nest under air conditioner vents, because apparently it was warm-blooded, and that’s what warm-blooded things do, I guess. But reptiles are cold-blooded, you say. Everyone knows that, you say. Right?, you say. Wrong. For a start, there’s the leatherback sea turtle, which has been shown to be endothermic. Then there’s the dinosaurs. Recent research shows that Harris lines, the classically accepted indicators of cold-bloodedness in dinosaurs, are also found in mammals, rendering them essentially useless in demonstrating ectothermy. This is not to say that dinosaurs were warm-blooded, of course; just that there is now less evidence to suggest that they were cold-blooded. How’s that for upsetting your worldview?

“Sergei doesn’t like it! Is lie, and Sergei doesn’t like lies!”

So that about does it for Dragon Fighter. Until next time, keep an eye to the skies; who knows where the sharks will end up next?

Alien Hunter – “There is something out there!”

This week, a movie that falls into the subgenre of Suspense/Thriller, by and large, a rarity for movies on this blog. Some good infection science in it, too, that will be discussed below, so I’ll dive right in.

Alien Hunter perpetuates the idea that extraterrestrials will be found frozen deep in the Antarctic ice sheets. Julian Rome (James Spader, Boston LegalSex, Lies, and Videotape) is a language professor, formerly with the SETI Institute (SETI, of course, standing for Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), when he learns of a repeating code hidden in a signal broadcast found emanating from Antarctica. He heads down to join a team of geneticists working to develop cheap, effective crop hydroponic systems, among them one of his former flames, Dr. Kate Brecher (Janine Eser, Undertaker’s Paradise; Merlin) and her current beau Dr. Michael Straub (John Lynch, Lassie; The Secret Garden). Once the object is free of the ice, the team realizes that it is some sort of pod and decides to cut it open, releasing a deadly pathogen and other forms of hilarity.

Top left – Julian; top right – Kate; bottom left – Michael; bottom right – another form of hilarity

I’d like to begin by recognizing the all-around decent product that all involved with this movie managed to make. I don’t often say this in these reviews, but there was no part of this movie that was so terrible it dragged other parts down; it was on the whole pretty solid. Even the effects managed to be above-average, though there were moments where they suffered (when Julian is landing in Antarctica, for example, rather than jostle the set it looked like they used a combination of shaky camera work and time-lapse recording to simulate turbulence); but the end of the movie, which typically suffers the most in my experience, probably had the best (and largest) effects of the whole movie, as well as what looked to be the most complicated and intricate ones.

“I can’t shoot this. What should I do? WHAT SHOULD I DO?!?”

Baby, you’re a firework

However, what this movie lacked in bad quality, it made up in clichés. Where to begin? Julian is a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, where he fills the role of the sexy professor who students want to sleep with (Kate was once a student of his), as well as the role of the out-there academic who may have given up trying to actively prove his hypotheses to the world but who would jump at the chance to prove them if possible (which is what he does when given the signal recordings). His past work with SETI also serves as a point of contention once he’s in Antarctica, at least until the others realize he’s right about aliens. Then there’s the clichéd location of the movie, Antarctica. From John Carpenter’s The Thing to AVP: Alien vs. Predator, it seems that the movie industry is fascinated with the idea that aliens could be in Antarctica right now!, and we just haven’t found them because it’s so cold and unexplored there (ignoring the thousands of researchers and at least 40 permanent research stations, not to mention however many thousands of adventurers, that travel there every year or live there year-round). I understand that they need to explain why we haven’t found them before, and, at least on Earth, the most exotic areas for many moviegoers are the poles and the oceans; but I suspect that most people underestimate how well-explored Antarctica is (and yes, I’m probably overestimating it, but if you have a problem with that, go write your own blog). And, of course, what movie with aliens would be complete without the obligatory shadowy government types scrambling to review the records of the Roswell incident to make a decision on how to proceed? Finally, even the aliens in this movie were somewhat cliché, looking vaguely like the bodysuits of the ones from Independence Day, which makes me wonder when, if ever, movies will start featuring aliens that are just plain weird. In most of the major alien movies I’ve seen, the baddies are either insectoid or look mostly human, with maybe some extra bones or arms or legs, or spikes here and there, or something; but in the end, two eyes, bipedal, a nose, etc. The ones in this movie were telepathic (via contact), as well, which is another common alien feature. I’m waiting for the movie where the aliens are truly alien (though maybe I just haven’t found it yet and it’s out there, somewhere….).

“Keep it down! I’m trying to sleep!”

You can tell it’s an alien because everything’s elongated

Hydroponic fashion of tomorrow – today!

But the main things I want to talk about are pathogens. Pathogens come in many forms – bacterial, fungal, viral, and more – but they all act as parasites, feeding off the host (though, importantly, the host does not always suffer from the presence of a parasite – many organisms have evolved beneficial symbiotic relationships with various pathogens, humans included). Typically, the survival of the pathogen depends, at least in part, on the survival of the host – if a parasite kills its host before it has a chance to reproduce, then that parasite will generally die out. This means that most pathogens have some sort of incubation period before potentially killing the host (though there are, of course, exceptions). When the team opens up the pod, they get infected with an alien pathogen, speculated to be some form of protozoa. However, within maybe two minutes of exposure, four members of the team get eaten alive from the inside out. I realize, of course, that this is an alien infection and needn’t follow the rules of life as we know it from Earth. However, the most virulent disease I could find was malaria, able to kill within hours of disease onset in the most severe cases. So allowing for a science fiction margin of error, I would personally say that, realistically, an alien disease could kill within maybe 45 minutes or one hour, at the fastest, and not after only moments of exposure as shown in the movie.

Left – no infection; right – seconds after exposure

Moreover, the entire team gets infected, but only about half the team dies. One of the proposed explanations for this is genetic flexibility, the idea that a parasite that kills its hosts too quickly will evolve to kill slower, giving the parasite more time to perpetuate itself. But there is no way, in Earth-terms, that a pathogen could evolve within seconds to become infectious but not fatal, especially given that humans would presumably have no natural defenses against it. In essence, in order for a pathogen to change its behavior as quickly as shown in the movie, it would almost need to be sentient and able to decide when and how hard to attack a host. Not impossible for an alien pathogen, of course, but highly unlikely for a microscopic organism from any planet. Then later, the idea of genetic flexibility is taken to imply that the infected team members could be asymptomatic carriers, infected but not showing symptoms, an idea strongly rejected by Michael, despite his being a world-renowned geneticist. However, this idea is neither terribly recent nor terribly disputed (as a quick scan of the literature shows), and I find it unfathomable that a respected scientist would denounce so vehemently an idea that was already widely accepted when the movie was made. (Of course, he is the biggest proponent of escape, as the US and Russian governments plan to nuke the site to prevent the spread of the disease, so he could have been arguing from a place of desperation rather than science.) Along these lines, the majority decides that, unless they can absolutely prove that they are not infected, they can’t risk spreading the disease to the surface. However, in the strictest, most honest science, the idea of absolute proof is essentially impossible to achieve. Every situation has so many different factors influencing interactions and so on that proving the non-existence of something is generally accepted to be impossible, which any world-renowned scientist would know.

“Stay back or I’ll shoot you – with science!”

As I mentioned above, the US and Russian governments decide that the safest course of action is to nuke the research site to keep the disease from escaping. My question is, without proper study of the pathogen, how can they even be sure that nukes would destroy it completely? Nobody in the movie knows what the pathogen is, and therefore they have no evidence that nukes would work, other than wishful thinking. Ignoring the damage caused by the nuke (this is Antarctica, after all), bombing the site strikes me as one of the most reckless choices available, and seems to me to risk spreading the disease a lot more than having the team study it would. And yet, the governments show unwavering faith in the idea that nuclear bombs can solve all problems. Which is actually kind of fitting, given that one could interpret the disease as a metaphor for paranoia, were one so inclined.

So there it is. A solid movie, though still not a good one, in the conventional sense. Until next time, watch out for ice sharks!

Oh, man, that’ll be a HUGE ice shark when it hatches…

Mongolian Death Worm – “Death rises from deep below”

So these past two weeks I dealt with ghost ships, philosophy, religion, and not much science at all. Getting away from my roots, I know. Well, this week should be back to normal, and not just that, but I think it’s safe to say that this will have more science stuff than any other review I’ve written. Now, I’ve got a lot to talk about here, so I’ll get started; and while I’ll do my best to avoid it, if you’re not careful, you just might learn something.

Mongolian Death Worm takes place, as you might have guessed, in Mongolia. Daniel (Sean Patrick Flanery, The Boondock Saints, The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles) is a treasure hunter searching for the tomb of Genghis Khan (more on that later), when he encounters Alicia (Victoria Pratt, Kraken: Tentacles of the Deep, Mutant X) and her assistant, doctors stranded while on their way to the village of Sepegal to help fight an outbreak of an unknown illness. Meanwhile, Patrick (Drew Waters, Friday Night Lights, Inspector Mom), head of an experimental oil drilling plant, is working with shady persons unknown to move a mysterious shipment out of the plant before his corporation sends people to the site to figure out what’s causing widespread machinery malfunctions. Oh, and Mongolian death worms appear randomly throughout the movie to kill people.

Top left – Daniel; top right – Alicia; bottom left – Patrick; bottom right – Mongolian death worm

As far as SyFy Channel movies go, the acting in this one was mediocre. (For reference, the best acting in a SyFy original would roughly correspond to “mediocre” in the real world, maybe a bit better than that.) The script, on the other hand, ventured solidly into the unfortunate, with many phrases repeated between scenes, little natural flow in conversation, and a general lack of evidence of effort. Of course, the line delivery was oftentimes wooden as well, making it hard to distinguish where the problem truly lay. The CGI was standard, though it seemed to get worse as the movie went on, until in the last scenes, the drilling plant “exploded” without any debris or shrapnel and without any semblance of real fire. (Speaking of explosions, we again encounter in this movie the moment where a gas tank gets hit by a bullet and the whole vehicle goes up in a fireball. Because for some reason, apparently everyone in these movies uses incendiary bullets, I guess? I dunno. Something like that.)

All rifles use explosive rounds all the time always

In addition to death worms, we also encountered a number of clichés in this one. For a start, there was no attempt whatsoever to leave the audience guessing as to who would die next – a person would wander off alone, hear a strange noise, and get et. By the middle of the movie, I was already waving goodbye to characters as they found themselves in such a situation. Additionally, there was the mercenary-with-a-heart-of-gold cliché so common these days. Daniel initially charges Alicia and her aide for a ride to Sepegal, predictably setting off a discussion about how he only looks out for himself and how he’s such a scoundrel etc. At the end, he returns all the money and has earned the admiration of Alicia (though he does have another reason to return the cash, to be explained below). Finally, there’s heavy environmentalist overtones throughout the whole movie. See, it turns out that the drilling plant is using heated water to melt the permafrost in the soil so as to be able to access oil. This melting causes the worms to wake up from hibernation and start terrorizing everyone, and the only way to stop the worms from continuing to hatch is to destroy the plant. We get it. Humanity is killing the planet and will eventually cause its own demise. Can we go back to watching worms kill people now? Thanks.

No situational awareness at all; is it any wonder he dies?

Normally, I’d bring up small continuity points here, like how we’re supposed to believe that Daniel gets the stuffing beat out of him but two minutes later shows up looking untouched, but I’ve got a lot to talk about that’s more interesting, so next up, some folklore and legends.

As I mentioned above, Daniel is searching for Genghis Khan’s tomb, a site which is to this day undiscovered (despite extensive desire and use of diverse methods). In the movie, death worms are supposed to be the guardians of the tomb, so naturally, when they start killing everyone, Daniel gets excited. In actual folklore, there is no connection I could find between the worms and the Khan; however, at least one hypothesis posits that the worms (generally agreed to only live in the Gobi Desert and not in Central Mongolia, where the movie takes place) could be guardians of a lost culture that once thrived in the desert area. The movie also has the worms interfering with electromagnetic signals, lining up with legends that say the worms can possibly kill via electric discharge. (Along these lines, the movie implies a link between the worms and the illness in Sepegal, which jives with stories of the worms’ ability to kill from a distance.) Conspicuously absent from any story I could find was mention of a buried treasure, which, as the plant explodes at the end of the movie, comes raining down around Daniel and Alicia, and which was the mystery shipment Patrick was bent on moving and the reason Daniel returns Alicia’s money.

“Should I spit acid at or electrify my prey today? So many choices!”

Now on to the real science!

Let’s accept, for a moment, that these worms exist in all their Mongolian deadliness. The movie presents them as man-sized (at the smaller end), segmented worms which live in a colony, have vaguely prehensile tongues, hibernate when frozen, attack prey from the front, and can be killed with gunfire. I’m going to explore these aspects one at a time, starting with the size.

It doesn’t look so tough!…

How big do worms get? I mean, really. Worms are small, right? We fish with them. They help our gardens grow. But they don’t get huge, right? Right? Yeah, not so much with the small worms. For example, some sea worms can grow to be four feet in length; some earthworms up to 22 feet; and there’s at least one species of worm found off the coast of Britain that can grow up to 180 feet in length, and emits toxic mucus, to boot. So I’m going to go ahead and say that the worms in this movie can be as long as they want, thank you very much, please don’t eat me. As for the thickness of the worms, I have my doubts that they would be able to breathe efficiently based on the surface-area-to-volume ratio. See, the larger an object gets, the more its surface area and volume increase. The problem is that volume increases as a cube, while surface area only increases as a square. This means that, at some point, diffusion of gas across the skin will not be able to occur quickly enough to supply oxygen to the body. Since many worms rely on this method of respiration (certainly many annelids, which is my best placement for the worms in this movie), there is a necessary upper limit on the surface-area-to-volume ratio, above which oxygen could not be absorbed quickly enough nor carbon dioxide expelled quickly enough to sustain life. I can’t guarantee that these worms would be above that ratio were they real, but I do feel comfortable guessing that they would be. Also, without a rigid skeletal structure, they would most likely either collapse under their own weight (this gets at why, say, ants can have such large ratios between body size and leg size but humans can’t) or would have skin so rigid and thick it would be difficult to move. Also, the one thing I feel I can say with certainty is there is next to no possibility that worms of this size could crawl across the ceiling, though they could have some sort of adhesive or such that went unmentioned in the movie.

“Look, ma! No hands!”

Spider-Man this ain’t

Next, do worms live in colonies or nests? While I could find no evidence supporting the idea that worms form nests, I also could not find much contradicting that idea, other than the abstract of an article about one species of polychaete, a class of annelids, wherein worms fought invading worms in various circumstances, implying that, at least in that species, there is a certain amount of territoriality which could be common to annelids in a larger sense. On the other hand, here’s one (admittedly discussing trematodes, a class in phylum Platyhelminthes, or flatworms) which not only talks about the parasites forming colonies, but about pretty epic battles between warriors from different colonies. So it’s anyone’s guess whether the death worms in the movie would actually live in a colony society.

Dinner at the Deathworms’

Do worms have tongues? Well, yes and no. Some species of annelid don’t have tongues so much as the ability to essentially turn their “throats” inside out, a process called eversion. They can use this to capture prey, some even being known to have sticky pads for just such a function. And of course, leeches sometimes have teeth. So while the movie worms could be accused of combining features of different classes and subclasses of annelids, the idea of a projectile tongue that can be used to grab prey is sound.

Left – eversion; right – not his best day

Can worms hibernate? First of all, the movie did not talk about hibernation, but rather cryptobiosis. The main difference between the two is that, in hibernation, metabolic activity gets depressed but continues; basically, the organism continues to function “normally”, but at a much slower rate. With cryptobiosis (a whole category of various states, including cryobiosis, wherein inactivity is stimulated by low temperature; for a more technical example of cryptobiosis, click here), metabolic activity stops; the organism doesn’t breathe, doesn’t eat, doesn’t grow, and can’t repair damage to itself, among other things. Cryptobiosis is typically in response to severe environmental conditions, such as desiccation or a lack of oxygen, and the state can persist indefinitely. Most people are already slightly familiar with cryptobiosis, as that is the phenomenon whereby brine shrimp can be mailed to, for example, pet stores to become fish food. So what does this have to do with worms? As it turns out, pretty much nothing, at least not earthworms (part of Oligochaeta, a class of annelids). See, earthworms do one of two things, typically, when temperatures get cold enough – they either burrow deep into the soil (up to six feet or so) and make a mucus-lined chamber for themselves (as a side note, this is not hibernation, as the worms will return to the surface if it gets warm enough regardless of how much time has passed since entering the chamber), or they die from the cold but lay eggs in protective cocoons to prevent freezing. Is cryptobiosis unheard of in annelids? I don’t know. Is it common? I suspect not, though I can’t find any evidence one way or another. Suffice it to say that it is unlikely the worms would exist indefinitely in permafrost (presumably the species would have evolved to take permafrost into account rather than enduring it via cryptobiosis), and it is unlikely, were the eggs to persist in a cryptobiotic state, that the worms would grow as large as they did as quickly as they did in the movie. Not impossible, necessarily, but unlikely.

Take away the cryptobiosis, and this animal is entirely plausible in every other way

On to hunting. Do worms hunt? Short answer – yes, some do. Given the huge amount of diversity within phylum Annelida, it’s no surprise that some hunt while others don’t. In fact, there are even some worms in the phylum which have jaws with which to seize prey. On the other hand, plenty of worms in the phylum sit still and wait for food to wander by, so let’s agree that death worms could actively hunt prey. I still have an issue with them, though – multiple scenes show them attacking prey from the front. Given that I have no idea what normal worm predatory strategies are, I’m going to draw comparisons to other predators for a moment. Many big cats (lions, cheetahs, etc.) get as close to prey as possibly before attacking, but don’t pursue for long distances. Dogs (wild dogs, wolves, etc.) tend to hunt in packs, and are more suited to longer chases. In either case, though, the most successful predator is one which stays hidden until striking. Now we look at our worms, which, on multiple occasions, reveal themselves to their prey for a couple of seconds before striking. In all cases, of course, the victims stand petrified with fright, but still, it doesn’t seem to me to be terribly efficient predatory behavior, especially considering that the worms can’t move all that quickly. So I’ve got to say that the way the worms hunt doesn’t really make much sense, though the fact that they hunt is plausible.

“Staring contest! Go!”

“Hey! Wormy! Down in front!”

Finally, the humans in the movie start shooting worms left and right and naturally (at least for our heroes), all it takes is one gunshot to the head and the worm’s down for the count. But does that really make sense? Let’s start here, wherein we learn that there are at least moderately reliable accounts of some species of worm growing into two worms after being bisected. There are two points of significance with that. The first is that cutting a worm in half is a much more serious wound than a gunshot (relatively speaking, it’s the difference between, say, cutting a common earthworm in half and poking a hole in it with a needle, or maybe a nail or something). In other words, if a worm can survive being cut in half, there’s no reason to assume it can’t survive a gunshot. The second point here is that destroying the brain won’t necessarily kill the worm, as cutting it in half can just lead to two worms (the origin part of one of which must, of necessity, have lacked a brain). Now, not only do worms not necessarily need brains in order to survive and regenerate, but the brain would be (presumably) extremely difficult to hit with a bullet if you didn’t know exactly where to aim. Thus, I have to conclude that shooting a giant worm to death really doesn’t make a lot of sense, and certainly not if you’re using a handgun. On the other hand, suffocating a worm should be pretty easy. As discussed above, worms breathe via transdermal intake of oxygen. For this to work, at least in earthworms, the skin must remain moist (which is why worms die soon-ish when they’re above ground). So if giant earthworms were rampaging through Mongolia, they couldn’t spend too long at all above ground, especially given the (previously discussed) surface-area-to-volume ratio. In other words, really all the people needed to do was outrun them. But that makes for a lame movie, I suppose.

“Come and get me, copper!”

Whew.

So that’s that. Science in death worms. Now, let’s get out there and see what kind of sharks we can catch with them as bait!

Lost Voyage – “After 30 years in the Bermuda Triangle… a GHOST SHIP returns”

And we’re back, with a look at another movie about a ship haunted by ghosts. I’m not really sure why, but it does seem to be the case that people like making movies about haunted ships – Lost Voyage, Ghost Voyage, and of course Ghost Ship (though it should be mentioned here that, of these three, Lost Voyage is the first released).

The movie opens with the father and stepmother of Aaron Roberts (Judd Nelson, Suddenly Susan, The Breakfast Club) boarding the Corona Queen for their honeymoon. The ship gets lost in a mysterious storm while navigating the Bermuda Triangle, and all aboard are killed. Jump ahead 25 years, and Aaron is working at an institute investigating paranormal phenomena (with science!) when he gets informed about the reappearance of the Corona Queen. Meanwhile, Dana Elway (Janet Gunn, Silk Stalkings, Dark Justice), a reporter for a tabloid television station, needs to save her career somehow and latches onto the return of the Corona Queen to do so. She hires a salvage team to take her to the ship, convincing Aaron to join her for her story. As expected by all the viewers, the group proceeds to get killed off one by one as they struggle to survive and escape the ship.

Left – Aaron; right – Dana

Normally, here is where I talk about the bad acting, bad CGI, bad script, etc. But something strange happened with this movie – it wasn’t awful. The acting had its weak moments, of course, but overall was quite solid (Mark Sheppard’s in it, after all). The writing had its flaws, but nowhere stood out as stilted, lazy, or distracting. And the effects, while pretty standard Sci-Fi Channel CGI, were sparing enough and quality enough to add to the atmosphere, though the ghosts at the end of the movie fell into two distinct categories of “acceptable” and “why did you waste money on that?”. However, overall, this movie served as a beacon of mediocrity floating in the sea of boring garbage that characterizes many Sci-Fi Channel movies.

Left – not the worst ghost ever; right – the alternative

As with last week’s Ghost Voyage, Lost Voyage was not the kind of movie that lends itself to much science critique, nor did it really have much in the way of philosophical or religious allegory. But there are a few general comments to make, as always.

First of all, the cinematography in this movie was itself better than much of what Sci-Fi Channel has to offer. The style of the opening, which took place in the ‘70s, was reminiscent of television shows filmed during that era, and transitioned more or less seamlessly into a more modern, familiar style for the parts taking place in the present. The CGI was spottier, with some elements, such as an otherworldly storm front, blending in quite well; other parts, such as some of the ghosts and one scene where the cameraman in the group gets turned into dust, stood out as particularly campy.

From the opening scene…

…and the gateway to Hell (maybe)

Then there are some things that don’t make much sense. For instance, Aaron works for an institute investigating paranormal phenomena, but his obsession with the Bermuda Triangle gets labeled as far-fetched and too out-there for other members of the institute to respect. There’s also a moment where the pilot of the helicopter that delivers the group to the ship says he can’t stay long because of the wind, but the next shot of the ship reveals apparently calm seas all around, despite the driving rain.

The wind is too strong; can’t you tell?

This movie also addresses one of the greatest clichés in horror movie history, that of people wandering off on their own despite members of the group going missing or being found dead. For instance, Dana’s rival television host Julie Largo (Scarlett Chorvat, Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, Freedom) decides that it’s a good idea to go try to get the story for herself, by herself, not only ignoring the fact that two people have already been killed, but also that the television cameras they brought have captured footage of a ghost. So she knows that the ship has otherworldly entities on it, and that two people have met horrible ends, but she decides to go solo anyways, and naturally suffers a grisly fate for it.

Grisly fate, before and after

On a side note, this movie did a good job of building the tension and the atmosphere, but sadly, it shied away from going all out and really trying to make this movie frightening. The place where this is most obvious is when Julie goes off on her own. She opens a door and enters a surreal dreamlike scene where she’s back at the network being offered Dana’s job. Except that, before the movie can capitalize on the tension created by this vision, we get a long shot of her standing in a hold on the ship, the door closes quickly, and then she screams, without us actually seeing what it is that kills her, nor how she dies.

This is also the closest this movie gets to having a religious connection. Aaron talks at one point about the possibility of the Triangle being a portal or gateway to another realm, maybe Hell, maybe something else entirely. Then, during Julie’s vision, her boss pushes her to sign a contract, promising that once she does, all her dreams will come true; though, as we all predicted, once she signs it, she dies. This would have been the perfect time to have her boss turn into the Devil or something along those lines, as the movie is clearly hinting that that’s who it is offering her the contract; but it stops short of going that far, thereby missing a good opportunity to add horror.

The man who would be Satan

Lost Voyage perpetuates the idea that ghosts are always enraged and homicidal, but that’s to be expected. What wasn’t expected was for it to be written, directed, and edited by the same man, a fact which naturally brings to mind the wonder and artistic masterpiece created by Tommy Wiseau. Yes, I’m talking about The Room, and for those of you who haven’t seen it yet, get a bunch of your friends together right now and go watch it.

Tommy Wiseau wills it so!

That’s it for Lost Voyage. Keep an eye out for ghost sharks – no reason they need to stay in the water!