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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…

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Heatstroke – “Welcome to Hell on Earth”

I figured I’d follow up my review of Mammoth, a standard creature feature, with a good old-fashioned disaster movie. After all, what else could Heatstroke be about, right? As it turns out, here’s a plot that both SETI enthusiasts and right-wing conservatives can get behind – aliens have secretly invaded Earth and are intentionally accelerating global warming to make the planet more hospitable for their eventual colonization. Honestly, I can’t believe I didn’t see that coming; it’s just so obvious!

Capt. Steve O’Bannon (D.B. Sweeney, The Darwin Awards, Strange Luck) heads up a team of researchers tracking a unique radiation signature. At the beginning of the movie, he crash-lands an ultralight airplane (seriously, follow that link – they look like so much fun to fly!) into the middle of a photo shoot run by Caroline (Danica McKellar, Young Justice, The Wonder Years), a model trying to make it as a photographer. After two of her models get killed by an alien, she joins up with Steve and his team to help destroy an alien structure that was set up to emit radiation to destroy the ozone layer. Also, there’s plenty of blood, a bit of alien possession, and even a guy spitting up an over-sized caterpillar/larva thing. Good times all around.

Top left – Capt. Steve O’Bannon; top right – Mental Blanakoff and Caroline; bottom – why you should always chew your food

It’s difficult for me to decide where I even want to begin this critique. The CGI was some of the worst I’ve seen in a long time, the plot overall made little if any sense, and throughout the movie I kept wishing the cast could find it in themselves to act just a little bit harder. So I guess I’ll start with an objective observation we can all agree on – hammocks rule. They’re just awesomely amazing.

Proof

Like I said, the effects in this movie were pretty terrible. There were some shots of the aliens that looked decent, including an actual physical model they made that, if it hadn’t looked like it were a rubber suit one could buy at a costume shop, would have been decent. Then there were other fairly mediocre CGI shots where the aliens looked a bit too bright against the background, but still moved somewhat realistically and weren’t completely terrible. Then there was the beach scene. Oh dear, was it horrible. One of the aliens surprises two models and Romeo Romero (Zac Heileson, Heatstroke), one of Steve’s team members, while they’re swimming in the ocean. They get separated, and the alien runs after one of the models as she runs down the beach trying to get away from it. Except it doesn’t really run after her so much as kind of… floaty-hop after her? She’s clearly running in front of a green screen, and it almost looks like the alien is on a string that someone’s pulling up and down in front of the screen, but also as part of the screen image, and… you know what? Just take a look for yourself. It’s terrible. And just… wow. Plus, that gives a pretty good look at the aliens, which I can only describe as being a cross between a velociraptor (like from Jurassic Park) and the Predator, or one of those vampires from that one Blade movie. You know the one.

Left – among the better CGI in the movie; right – among the mediocre/bad CGI in the movie

Before I look into the sciencey bits (which I know you’re all dying to read about), there is one other part that deserves special recognition – at the end, Steve and what’s left of his team attempt to blow up the radiation emitter and, apparently, put an end to global warming. He encounters Waters (Chris Cleveland, Dry Run, The Prestige), who was possessed by one of the aliens earlier in the movie. They engage in an epic fight scene lasting a good five or seven minutes and consisting entirely of the exact same footage, repeated at least three times from different angles, separated by shots of a CGI cruise missile on its way to destroy the emitter (and presumably the terrible acting). It was one of the laziest things I have ever seen in these movies; and it was glorious.

Left – best effect in the movie; right – hilariously bad CGI

As I mentioned above, the basic plot is that, in 1975, aliens caused a volcanic eruption on an island, resulting in average temperatures on that island to increase every year, along with the average size of the insects living there. See, apparently, the aliens are insectivores (with wicked-sharp claws, multiple-hinged jaws, and the ability to spit acid clouds, because why not?), and they saw that humans were going to destroy the world eventually anyways, so they decided to speed up the process and turn the planet into their own bug farm, killing most other life in the process. Which made me wonder what actually would (or, really, will) happen as the Earth gets warmer.

A clearly insectivorous species

Aside from some of the obvious (temperatures increasing, weather patterns changing, insect-borne diseases becoming more prevalent), there are some observations that are not what you might expect. For one thing, apparently the cloud layer is lowering, on average. But more interestingly, as relates to this movie, is the finding that ancestral horses (Sifrhippus sandrae, to be exact) were a lot smaller than modern horses and actually shrank as temperatures increased (the first link there is to a paper abstract (you can read the whole thing if you have a subscription to Science magazine); the last one is to a more reader-friendly summary of that study’s findings). If it is indeed the case that increased global temperatures could push mammals toward smaller body sizes, that could open up new ecological niches into which other creatures (such as insects) could spread. Basically, if mammals need fewer resources to survive (say, by becoming smaller), that means more resources are available for other organisms to use. This doesn’t automatically mean insects would become bigger – they could become more plentiful, or reptiles could dominate again, or who knows what; but what it does mean is that the possibility is there for insects to take over niches vacated by mammals as mammals get smaller. So while there is no guarantee that the aliens’ plan to grow insects by making the Earth hotter would work, there is some amount of tenuous possibility to it. And to me, that’s actually kind of neat. Though I could not find any evidence supporting the idea that heat alone could make insects larger. So there’s that, too.

I leave you with one more link, because it’s awesome. Enjoy!

Mammoth, aka Outbreak – “We hunted it into extinction… Now it’s hunting us”

Before I begin this review, I offer a bit of an apology. This entry is more than two months overdue, mainly because I recently moved and had to get settled in at the new place. So I’m sorry it’s taken so long for an update, and hopefully it won’t be this late again. Now, I believe we have some sharks to jump.

Mammoth tells the story of a small town in Louisiana with a big problem; specifically, the frozen mammoth at the local natural history museum becomes possessed by an alien entity and goes on a murderous rampage around town. (For those of you keeping score at home, this movie sets a record for sharks jumped, combining zombies, aliens, and mammoths all in one.) Dr. Frank Abernathy (Vincent Ventresca, The Invisible Man, Boston Common), curator of the museum and resident expert on all things mammoth, is recruited by agent Powers (Leila Arcieri, Son of the Beach, xXx), an agent working for a shadowy international alien-fighting organization, to help contain the mammoth before the government steps in and destroys the town. They’re joined by Simon Abernathy (Tom Skerritt, Picket Fences, Alien), Frank’s UFO-obsessed father, and Jack Abernathy (Summer Glau, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Firefly), Frank’s daughter. Along the way, things get destroyed, people die, and Frank and Jack reach a new understanding of and respect for each other.

Top left – Jack and Frank; top right – Squirrelly, Simon, and Jack; bottom left – Frank; bottom right – agent Powers

So, how does Mammoth stack up? The acting was above-average, a welcome respite from the normal state of Sci Fi Pictures productions. The CGI could have been better (as always), but it was respectable enough. Overall, it was a higher-quality production than expected, though still just a below-average movie.

“Wait for meeeee!”

One thing they did well was the tone. It was part modern-day monster havoc movie, part ’50s alien-invasion-movie homage – everything from the town to the way Simon was convinced UFOs existed had touches of a quaint small town stuck in the past, but with distinctly modern overtones (such as cell phones and rave parties in the woods. On a sidebar, what is up with rave parties in the woods? They always – always – end badly, with monsters running amok or everyone becoming zombies or something like that. You’d think people would learn…). All of this added up to a movie that didn’t quite take itself seriously, one that always was just a little tongue in cheek, an aspect of the movie I ended up enjoying; there’s little worse than a mediocre monster movie that takes itself completely seriously.

Example of a bad idea that will end badly.

However, the opening sequence in the movie not only bears mentioning, but also demonstrates just how over the top this movie is. It opens in the museum, with some boy scouts wandering into a restricted area wherein lies the mammoth, encased in a giant block of ice (because that’s how most examples of frozen mammoths exist in real life). Here they encounter the good doctor, who proceeds to shoo them out of the exhibit area before drilling a hole in the ice and extracting a small pellet from the mammoth (I should point out, too, that before he extracts the pellet, he sees an image on a screen of a miniature universe apparently contained within the pellet, though that part is neither clear nor ever mentioned again). Once the pellet is extracted, it sends out radio waves that knock him to the floor, whereupon the camera zooms out to show Earth, then other parts of the solar system, culminating in a flying saucer (à la The Day the Earth Stood Still) releasing a probe to find the source of the beacon. This all leads to the probe flying through an asteroid belt (presumably the one in our solar system) and the most illegible credit sequence I have seen in a long time. I’m not sure what font they chose, but written against the CGI asteroids, the words of the various production companies and such were almost impossible to make out. Fortunately, that segment of the opening credits was short, and the actors were all listed with normal font that was easily readable.

The most readable asteroid text in the opening credits.

Next, boy did this movie have clichés… For a start, Dr. Frank Abernathy is one of the most stereotypically absent-minded professor types movies have to offer. He can’t remember that he needs to be at his daughter’s driving test, he can’t remember where he put his keys, he gets distracted by just about everything and can’t remember what he was doing two minutes ago; he’s written (at least, for the first third or so of the movie) as a man whose only concern in life is his work, at the expense of everything else. This may be a raw nerve with just me, but as a scientist (by training if nothing else), I have to take offense. The majority of scientists I have met are nothing at all like that. Many are, in fact, the exact opposite, being very aware of what’s going on; but still we keep seeing the idea that anyone who’s good at being a researcher must suck at being a person. Hollywood, please go out and meet some actual scientists. Thank you.

“I don’t know, officers; I would have sworn I left my mammoth right here!”

Second cliché – Jack is sick of her father always forgetting events in her life, such as her driving test. I don’t have any sisters, and I never was a 16-year-old girl, so I can’t say how common it is for teenage daughters to not really understand or get along with their fathers. What I can say, based on my own experiences, is that the situation wherein a teenager begins a movie fighting with their parent or parents and ends the movie at a new level of understanding with their parent or parents is incredibly overdone. It would be refreshing, to say the least, if movie makers could find some new way to introduce drama and/or tension between characters, rather than resorting to this easy and beaten-to-death way out, especially because the development of their relationship takes away from the mammoth’s screen time.

Third cliché – Simon is convinced that aliens exist, despite being otherwise quite a down to earth man. As the movie goes on, he of course becomes vindicated, although he does manage to avoid gloating, which was appreciated, at least by me. Still, the idea of the old guy who everyone thinks is a bit unhinged but is in reality right about everything, even if he doesn’t know it, is pretty much used up at this point.

Fourth cliché – the deputies assisting the sheriff are complete morons. They don’t even really serve as comic relief, that role being more successfully filled by Simon. They’re just dumb. Fortunately, they don’t stick around through the whole movie.

Fifth cliché – agent Powers and her partner work for a shadowy, unknown international governmental organization that gets called in when the alien probe crashes into the museum and possesses the mammoth. They’re basically a rip-off of the Men in Black, and seem to come standard with a movie of this nature.

Cue classic Western showdown music.

Now, I have a few important questions. First of all, if you saw an until-recently frozen solid mammoth break free of its ice prison, and you were a 60- or 70-year-old security guard, would your first instinct be to draw your pistol, of all weapons, to try to kill it? Because I’d guess that my first instinct would be to run. I get that guns are powerful, but there are plenty of animals in the actual world that could more or less shrug off a pistol, and I suspect that an elephant would be one of them (they make “elephant guns” for a reason). Second of all, when there’s a large, unstoppable monster rampaging through a given area (downtown Tokyo, downtown New York City, a rave party in the woods), I understand the urge to run away from it, but why does everyone always run away from it? That is, why do people not run sideways from it, in order to get out of its path? If it hasn’t noticed you, or is ignoring you, it seems to me that the safest way to run would be away from where it’s going to be as well as away from where it is. But that’s just me, I suppose. Third of all, if there’s a beast running around that is known to shake the ground and walk with large rumbling steps, how on earth does that beast manage to sneak up on multiple people? Not only does the mammoth accomplish this feat, but it pulls it off at least twice during the movie, despite shaking the ground when it walks and making Jurassic-Park-esque booms with each step (there are several wonderful moments in this movie reminiscent of that masterpiece, of course), which begs the question, is everyone in this movie completely oblivious to what’s going on behind or to the side of them? I just don’t get it.

“He followed me home! Can I keep him? He’s really quiet, I promise!”

Now on to the sciencey bits.

Our two imbecilic deputies arrive at a scene with multiple dead bodies and find tracks from the mammoth that looked to me to be at least 4 inches deep, probably deeper. It’s unclear exactly how much the mammoth weighs, and those tracks were made in a corn field (soil that’s been planted tends to be looser and softer than other soils, and therefore deeper tracks are easier to make), but I find 4-inch-deep tracks to be unlikely; though, to be fair, the only real-life reference I could find doesn’t speak to the depth of tracks, only the length and width (the paper can be found here, and is a neat little study). So while possible, the tracks presented in the movie strike me as being exaggerated.

Also, the body of the mammoth was encased in ice for an indeterminate length of time, and the doctor remarks that it was frozen alive. However, there are clear signs of decomposition on the body. I understand the desire to make the mammoth as fearsome as possible, but I’m not sure how likely it is that decomposition would occur on a body encased in ice. As this study of Ötzi the Iceman points out, only limited decomposition was found in a body frozen in a glacier for 5,000 years. The body was, in fact, mummified by the dry conditions at that altitude. So there is some real-world evidence that a body frozen in ice should have little obvious decomposition, and instead be more desiccated and mummified than the mammoth in the film. In other words, it seems to me that it would have more likely been an alien-possessed mummy mammoth instead of an alien-possessed zombie mammoth; at least, based on science.

“Give us a kiss!”

So there you have it – Mammoth in all its glory. More reviews will be coming this week, and as always, try to stay ahead of the sharks.