Contact, Independence Day, Men in Black, Signs

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
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Rating Symbols

HBS

Hot Babe Scientist. Linus Pauling never looked like this. Hollywood is now capable of dealing with a woman scientist. Someday they will be capable of portraying a plain, middle-aged or overweight woman scientist.

HUNK

Hunk Scientist. Linus Pauling never looked like this, either. Stephen Hawking may be a great heroic role model, but good looks sell tickets.

HCIM

High Caloric-Intake Monster. Large animals eat a smaller fraction of their body weight each day than small ones, a manifestation of surface to volume ratio. Hollywood critters, on the other hand, eat like shrews.

PAPWL

Pompous Ass who Pays With His Life. The pig-headed boss or political figure who refuses for selfish reasons to listen to warnings and gets killed. Occasionally it really happens; the governor of Martinique refused to evacuate when Mont Pelee began erupting 1902, and died in the resulting catastrophe. So did 30,000 innocent people.

SK

Superfluous Kids. Kids (generally repugnant) who serve no real dramatic purpose except to generate audience sympathy. I root for the monsters, especially when the kids do something stupid after they've been told not to.

CCHNC

Cookie Crumbs Have No Calories. And large objects (like asteroids) cease to exist once they're broken up.



Contact (HBS, PAPWL)

Contact got excellent reviews, but I have to concur with the reviewer who called it "eye candy". The reviewers were so nice that I hate to rain on their parade, but Contact is a mediocre film based on a mediocre novel. For something that was the great joy of Carl Sagan's life, Contact is an amazingly gray and cheerless book. Sagan deserves a better epitaph. It took me a month to work up the courage to see the film. The film is actually a bit better since some of the more irritating details of the book were omitted.

The good news is that Jodie Foster is ideally cast. The blind technician identifying signals by sound is a marvelous touch, The notion that a mysterious super-rich person might be on the side of good is a refreshing change from the usual paranoia that the media foster. But a romance between the skeptical scientist and the televangelist Palmer Joss stretches the concept of "opposites attract" into the realm of the preposterous.

Sagan was not nearly as hostile to religion as some of his critics have alleged, and in Contact he goes out of his way to portray Joss as the most intellectually responsible televangelist. Nevertheless, Joss simply doesn't ring true. It's as if a room full of agnostic writers tried to imagine how a minister thinks instead of finding a real one and asking him (winging it instead of checking the facts is nothing new in the movies: see Asteroid)

Back in the bad old days of TV Westerns, writers usually resorted to "hugga-mugga" talk: instead of real Indian dialog they'd simply have the actors spout gibberish. The religious content of Contact is pretty much on the same plane: superficially authentic sounding but gibberish in reality. The most embarrassing moment in the film comes when Joss asks Alloway, in a hokey hillbilly accent, why she's willing to risk her life ("Yo're willin' to risk yo're lahf. Whah?"). No serious religious commentator would question the moral legitimacy of risking one's life for a good enough cause, and the tradition of explorers risking (and often losing) their lives is pretty firmly established in history.

And nothing can save Contact from its ending, the principal reason it took me a month to work up the nerve to see the film. The "aliens are too inscrutable for us" ending has been done before, and infinitely better, in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The idea of aliens sending us instructions for building a complex machine was done in the 1950's in Fred Hoyle's A for Andromeda. The idea that they would send us blueprints for a fantastically complex machine and then do something as petty as wipe the memory of a digital camera is just too stupid for words. Contact is cobbed together out of bits and pieces of other stories.

Independence Day

The most-frequently criticized aspect of this film is the President (Bill Pullman) flying a combat mission. But by the time that happens, the Earth's military forces are down to 10 per cent strength. If the attack fails, we're all toast anyhow. What difference does it make?

The idea that the aliens run IBM-compatible computers is a bit harder to swallow, as is the fact that they apparently lack firewalls or any other kind of computer security. But my real complaint is that the film dredges up every piece of pseudoscientific schlock around. The aliens have force fields, they communicate telepathically, they abduct humans, there really are alien ships at Area 51, and so on. Oh, despite trying for 50 years and failing to duplicate the aliens' energy source, once the ship comes to life (due to the arrival of the Mother Ship), Jeff Goldblum can interface a computer running on plain old earth electricity to the alien system.

Randy Quaid plays a traumatized alien abductee who finally gets his revenge. But if the aliens are out to destroy earth, why would they return anyone and run the risk of having their plans revealed?

Surely the most gratingly asinine part of the film has to be Brent Spiner's portrayal of a flaky scientist in charge of the super-secret government research program to study a crashed alien ship. This is not someone you'd put in charge of making coffee, much less a multi-billion dollar facility.

Mary McDonnell is the President's wife, who is fatally injured while fleeing Los Angeles but who lives long enough to be transported to Area 51 for a tear-jerking farewell with her husband and daughter. Because, although the government has a 24-story underground facility with the most advanced scientific gear and personnel imaginable, including an operating room for dissecting aliens, they don't have anyone capable of doing surgery for internal injuries. The military types don't even have a single combat lifesaver who could take a shot at it. She's dying, for heaven's sake. How can any attempt at surgery make it worse?

None of the drivel really helps the plot one iota. If the aliens have studied us enough to know where all our major cities and military sites are, they should have some knowledge of our languages, so why drag in telepathy? Anyone who can move ships 15 miles in diameter will be a tough opponent even without force fields. No nuke in existence would destroy a ship 15 miles in diameter. At most it would blow a hole a couple of miles across, only a few per cent of the area of the ship. That's assuming the aliens don't have defense systems capable of shooting down incoming missiles.

A CCHNC rating for the finale, where chunks of the mother ship (hundreds of miles in diameter) come raining in, apparently harmlessly.

Independence Day has above-average potential for some interesting sequels:

Men in Black

Like Independence Day, this film assumes all the UFO paranoia and tabloid trivia is true, but with a wickedly satirical purpose. Tabloids are "the finest investigative reporting on the planet. You can believe the New York Times if you want - sometimes they get lucky." "Elvis isn't dead - he just went home." A romp from start to finish. One of the few films I was actually sorry to see end.

MIB II, of course, lacked the element of total novelty that made the original so delightful, but it wasn't as disappointing as some critics claimed. No film that claims that most employees of the Postal Service are aliens can be all bad.

Signs

A taut, low-key alien invasion thriller. Mel Gibson stars as a disillusioned ex-clergyman who has his faith restored when a series of seemingly meaningless events come together at a critical moment.

Crop circles, it turns out, are real, and the prelude to an alien invasion. The larger events are conveyed by occasional TV bulletins while Gibson and his neighbors cope with the local menace.

There are two big scientific problems in the film. First is the use of crop circles as navigation aids. Crop circles a few hundred meters in size are tiny when viewed from high altitude, and invisible at night or through cloud cover. Plus they're merely passive - they don't emit any kind of signal. If we klutzy earthlings have GPS systems that can enable a plane over the ocean at night to pinpoint its location to within a few meters, surely starfaring extraterrestrials ought to be capable of the same thing. The circles on Gibson's farm are doubly absurd because he lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Why would crop circles on a field be more effective for navigation than the lights of nearby Philadelphia?

Second, as in some other films, the aliens find water highly toxic and corrosive. Now abundant cosmic materials like carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, methane and ammonia are toxic to humans, so why couldn't water be toxic to aliens? Because water is vastly more abundant in the universe than those other materials, and at earth temperatures (which the aliens can survive unprotected) it is far and away the most abundant liquid. It is very difficult to conceive of a life-bearing habitat in the universe that will lack abundant water, even if it's not essential for the life itself. The earth is water-poor compared to places like Europa. If water is so corrosive to these aliens (worse than mustard gas to us), surely brushing against dew-covered plants should be dangerous. Merely being in our air, which has abundant water vapor and suspended water droplets, would be as deadly to them as a mustard gas attack would be on unprotected humans.


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Created 5 February 1998, Last Update 02 June 2010

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