Atlantis, Final Fantasy, Titan A.E., Finding Nemo

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
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Atlantis: the Lost Empire

Indiana Jones meets 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea meets Journey to the Center of the Earth. A meek archaeologist in 1914 is bankrolled by a billionaire friend of his father to search for the sunken land of Atlantis. 

Pearl Harbor was aptly described by Roger Ebert as “A two-hour film crammed into three hours.” This film, on the other hand, would have benefited from being half an hour, or even ten minutes, longer. The most dramatic moments, the sinking of Atlantis and the pursuit of the explorers’ submarine by a sea monster, are just too rushed and chaotic for viewing.

The sub is destroyed, and the survivors carry on the quest in a maze of undersea caverns. And what a crew. There’s the meek archaeologist and the grasping leader. James Garner is agreeably smarmy as the voice of the expedition leader. There’s the billionaire’s slinky and cynical assistant. There’s an Italian explosives expert, a French geologist, a chain-smoking Brooklyn communications operator, a Hispanic teenage girl mechanic, a half-black, half-Cherokee medic, the kid from Brooklyn who’s too young to die … oops, wrong movie. The manic quest to be politically correct in times when prejudice was the norm is so intense, it grates. How exactly would a Hispanic girl in 1914 get to be entrusted with running the engine room on a large ship?

The Italian explosives expert is perhaps the best developed character. He had worked in a flower shop until a gas explosion revealed his true passion, blowing things up. Sweet, the medic, lives up to his name and the Hispanic girl has her moments. The others mostly irritate. The character idiosyncracies contribute nothing to the story. The French geologist Moliere, nicknamed “mole,” is depicted as so passionately in love with dirt that he never bathes, but so what? All he does in the film is throw the switch on a tunneling machine, a job anyone on the expedition could have done.

There’s not too much science per se in the film. You just have to ignore the mechanical impossibility of supporting caverns that large. Also, somebody needs to teach Hollywood about thermal equilibrium. One of the favorite underground gimmicks, it seems, is a river of molten lava (Where does it come from? Where does it go? Don’t ask.) In reality, if you had permanent lava underground in a confined space, it would heat the surroundings until everything was as hot as the lava. Yet here we have rope bridges spanning the lava, not even singed. Who built the bridge? Why? Would you sign up for a construction crew to build a bridge over molten lava? Discuss. Compare. Contrast. Analyze. 1000 words, due Thursday.

Also, the Atlanteans speak a dialect that is the root of all existing languages, so they can instantly pick up any modern language. Saves having to do subtitles. If it were only true. You could take Latin and automatically speak French, Spanish, and Italian.

In a nice twist, the Atlanteans need the outsiders because they have lost the ability to read their ancient writings. The expedition leader and the slinky assistant are in it only for the plunder, however. They steal a giant crystal that is the source of all life energy for Atlantis. The remaining characters throw in their lot behind the archaeologist, who shows the Atlanteans how to revive their long-forgotten machines. Fortunately, they were equipped with copper-top batteries and still run.

There are some lovely visual moments in the film. However, the film tries to achieve the look of Japanese anime’ and unfortunately, mostly only manages to look decades out of date. The animation for the trailer (with the letter A rising out of the sea) is far better than the movie itself.  A fun film but it could have been far better. Hint to Disney animators: you tried for a retro look in Fantasia II in the Rhapsody in Blue sequence and it came out with all the visual appeal of Huckleberry Hound. You're trying for a "look" here, and it doesn't work. Forget "look." Stick to state of the art. 

Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within

I saw this mostly because of the computer effects. This is the first movie to attempt wholly computer-rendered humans, and if it doesn’t get entirely there, it comes remarkably close.

It’s 2065, 38 years after the earth was invaded by the mysterious Phantoms, energy beings that are largely invisible and that kill all life on contact. That means they’re coming in 2027, at which time I’ll be 80 years old and won’t care much. Sucks to be you, though.

The heroine, Aki, is searching for energy forms (“spirits”) that can be combined to neutralize the Phantoms. How exactly she knows this is fuzzy at best. Rent the video game, I guess, if you want background information. She crosses paths with a military patrol featuring the rugged captain (he and Aki were An Item at one time, apparently), the big kind black sergeant, the wisecracking kid and the tough as nails female trooper, plus the kid from Brooklyn who’s too young to die. Sorry, wrong movie again.

Aki keeps having dreams, and eventually realizes she’s communicating with the Phantoms and seeing the end of their world. A chunk of it is blown away and hits the earth, carrying the spirits of alien beings with it. These are the Phantoms.

As if invisible lethal energy beings aren’t enough of a challenge, there’s an evil general who wants to blow the Phantoms away with a super laser, despite warnings that he will only make the Phantoms stronger. To sell his concept to the Council, he disrupts one sector of the shield around what’s left of New York, allowing Phantoms to invade. The plan is to cause just enough havoc to convince the Council of the need to exterminate the Phantoms (as if killing off almost all life on earth wasn't enough), but the Phantoms get loose and nearly everyone in New York dies. Cats keeps running, however.

The ending is unforgivably sappy. The general reaches his orbiting laser and predictably overloads it and blows it up, but not before zapping the meteor crater where the Phantoms originally arrived. Unfortunately, Aki and the captain are there looking for the eighth and last spirit at the time. They get it. Aki can now neutralize Phantoms. So her lover, the captain, grasps her hand and touches the Phantoms. The energy flows out of her, through him, and annihilates the Phantoms, but the captain gives his life in the process.

Even given the garbled mythology of the story, this makes no sense whatever. If Aki contains the energy to neutralize the Phantoms, why doesn’t she just do it herself? If the energy flows out of her and through the captain, why isn’t he protected?

The animation really is spectacular. The visualization of the details of 2065 technology and the appearance of the Phantoms are as good as the human renderings. Unfortunately the characters have the blocky, generic look of video game characters. Only Dr. Sid, Aki’s elderly mentor, comes across as a real individual. You literally forget he’s computer-generated. But the troopers and the general are pretty stilted. One of the most disappointing moments to me came when I saw the voice credits. Jane, the hardened female trooper, is lifeless and cliched, but her voice was done by Peri Gilpin (Roz on Frazier.) Peri Gilpin has about as much in the way of looks and personality as any actress, but it goes completely to waste in the film.

Titan A.E. 

This film was criticized mostly because the rather flat animation of the characters contrasted with the much more elaborate backdrops. On the whole it's actually a pretty good picture. I didn't think the backdrops were all that spectacular, although there were a few very good scenes. 

32nd-century Earth is under attack by the Drej, a race of pure energy beings. We're told several times that they are afraid of what we might become, but never more than that. Evacuation ships flee, and we see a small boy saying farewell to his father before boarding an evacuation ship. Dad, it turns out, is flying the Titan, a huge ship that can later be the salvation of the human race. What, no crew? It's the size of an aircraft carrier and the salvation of the human race, and it has no crew? 

Sixteen years later (A.E. = After Earth), the boy is a lone human on a salvage ship full of aliens. The Drej come looking for him, but he's rescued by two humans. Seems he's got a genetically encoded map in his hand that tells the location of the Titan. The two humans are his father's old second in command and a young Japanese woman. The boy is hostile, embittered because he believes his father abandoned him, but hey, it beats being killed by the Drej. 

The map leads them first to an alien world populated by flying aliens and aquatic trees with huge hydrogen globes, one of the most impressive scenes in the film. The Drej attack and capture the boy and girl. They jettison the girl but keep the boy. If they hate humans that much, you wonder why they don't just toss her into space, but they launch her off in a pod. The boy escapes, but not before the Drej copy the map. The girl turns up in an alien slave market but her two sidekicks rescue her. 

They put in at a Drifter Colony, a ramshackle assemblage of space habitats where most human survivors live, and there the boy and girl overhear the captain describing his plans to find the Titan for the Drej. He figures humanity is a lost cause, and he might as well get the most out of it. His cover blown, the captain takes off, leaving the boy and girl stranded. But the boy knows a thing or two about space salvage, and he recruits help to refit an old junked spaceship. 

The Titan, it turns out, is hidden in a vast cloud of drifting giant ice crystals orbiting a nebula. The boy and girl get there just ahead of the turncoat captain, who tries to stop them. The batteries of the Titan are run down and don't have enough power to start the ship, but the boy realizes that if he can just close the circuit breakers, he can tap the Drej energy weapons when they fire. But, wouldn't you know it, one sticks. The boy has to go out to fix it and the Drej attack. He's pinned under a wrecked ship but the turncoat captain has a change of heart, frees him, and gives his life to save the ship. We discover that hostile energy beings make a great energy source. 

The Titan, it turns out, has the power to create a whole new planet, which it does by condensing the nebula (see Star Trek, Wrath of Khan for technical specs.) The Titan is stocked with DNA from every terrestrial species, as well. On first discovering the DNA library, the boy, who has lived for years among aliens, somehow knows what a bottle-nosed dolphin is. The creation of the new planet is another impressive scene, and the ice crystals rain in to create oceans for the new planet. We end with drifter colonies coming in to settle New Earth. 

If the Drej hate humans that much, why don't they finish the job by destroying the defenseless drifter colonies? Are we to believe there are no uninhabited Earth-like planets to settle, without having to create one? If the Titan got safely away, how did the boy's father die? Why didn't they simply use it immediately to create a new planet instead of hoarding it all those years? And what's to stop the Drej from destroying New Earth as well? 

The drifting ice crystals are not all that implausible. I could imagine a very cold cloud of water vapor in space doing that, but if the crystals are as close together as they are in the film, they'd grind themselves to powder very quickly. 

The big scientific problems in the film are planetary physics. You just can't blow a planet to smithereens from within. Long before you pump in that much energy, you'd have melted it. One world is shown orbited by a large moon with a cleft extending nearly to its center. Planets are round because of their gravity, and a moon that big could not support a cleft that deep - gravity would simply pull the moon inward to close it up. And New Earth is red hot as it forms, but cool enough to inhabit shortly afterward. That's a bit of a problem in thermodynamics. The question of how exactly the new planet came to have an oxygen atmosphere is also unanswered. Still, it's a fun film. There's lot's of action, some very cool visual moments, and a nice ending.

Finding Nemo

There's precious little science in the film, the story of a father fish trying to find his son, who has been captured and placed in an aquarium. As far as anyone knows, fish can't communicate complex thoughts, plot escapes, feel emotions, and all the other anthropomorphic things the characters in the film do. Ellen de Generes steals the show as the voice of a scatterbrained fish with no short-term memory.

The science is in the making of the film. Underwater scenes had long been regarded as one of the hardest things to animate convincingly. In the days of hand-drawn animation cels, bubbles were used to remind viewers that the scene is under water (see the Arabian Dance in the Nutcracker segment of Disney's Fantasia for an example). Pixar technicians identified some of the key attributes of underwater scenes:

The next underwater animated film will improve on this film, but it's a very impressive technical achievement.


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Created 07 November, 2002,  Last Update 02 June 2010

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