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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…