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Monday, June 24

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Aliens of the Deep
3 of 5 stars
Directed by James Cameron and Steven Quale.

For the past few years, Jim Cameron has used the windfall and freedom that making the biggest moneymaker of all time* to go make documentaries. Although I didn't see Expedition: Bismarck (which aired on the Discovery Channel) or Ghosts of the Abyss because I have little interest in sunken boats, I was excited to learn about Aliens of the Deep, which features the Titanic director and a few scientists diving down to the hydrothermal vents erupting from the cracks between the Earth's tectonic plates. I forgot that even a documentary by Jim Cameron about ocean life in one of the world's most inhospitable environments is still a film by Jim Cameron. It's not that Aliens of the Deep is bad. It's not. It's just aimed squarely at fifth graders, like all of his films.

A couple of minutes at the beginning of the film are eaten up with the usual IMAX "ooh, 3-D" silliness and some generic, pseudo-meditative "yay science!" banter by grad student and marine animal physiologist Djanna Figueroa, one of the scientists who joins Cameron on his expedition. Like most of the scientists featured prominently in the film, Ms. Figueroa is young and photogenic and doesn't come off as the slightest bit geeky. Obviously, Cameron wants to inspire some young'uns to take an interest in science -- to convince them that science isn't just for nerds -- and in a country where science is taking a back seat to Christian fundamentalism, that isn't a bad thing. But my interest in both children's books and science leads me into the kids' science section often, and the problem I see is that little material directed at kids goes beyond this introductory area. It's all either for adults and too heady or so superficial or dumbed-down that it's little wonder so many kids lose interest. And this is the rather minor problem with Aliens of the Deep, too. Too many moments we listen to the lucky divers say something is "awesome," "cool," or "the bomb" when, even though we may agree, perhaps we could have been told a little something about what we're looking at instead.

The most interesting and beautiful thing about Aliens of the Deep is, of course, looking at the "aliens" themselves -- and they are absolutely breathtaking. The ocean life includes fan-like coral, vent shrimp, crab, giant squid, deep-sea octopus, a monkfish (dubbed "Mr. Ugly"), tubeworms, mussels and the organisms at the root of this strange ecosystem: the masses of sulfur- and methane-oxidizing bacteria so numerous that they clump together in threads and coat everything within sight. Literally, everything: one unfortunate crab has to fend off some shrimp hell-bent on eating the bacteria off him. Probably the most gorgeous sight in the film is a rare bioluminescent, membranous jellyfish that is dubbed "the space bagel" (otherwise known as Deepstaria enigmatica). Even the carbon chimneys and a shelf-like structure with a reflective underside (from the superheated water rushing across it) have an otherworldly beauty to them. These images alone are well worth the price of admission. But in all honesty, other than staring dumbfoundedly at the screen a dozen times or so, I didn't really walk out of the theater with the feeling that I had learned much. Then again, I eat this stuff up, so I was already familiar with most of the creatures and the science shown in the film.

For better and for worse, Aliens of the Deep is just the Discovery Channel writ large -- very large -- but that's all it needs to be, even at $10.50 for only a 47-minute feature. The intent, which is abundantly clear by the time the credits roll, is to draw comparisons between ocean life and any life that we might run across elsewhere in this solar system (such as Europa, one of Jupiter's moons) or beyond. One CGI sequence at the end of the film visually suggests how we might send a robotic probe to Europa and bore through miles of ice to the (theoretical) oceans below. Its ending, briefly hypothesizing a couple of Europan creatures, is kind of silly but forgivable, if only because of its intended audience. Compared with the space bagel, the imaginary creatures' earthbound design only underscores a fact that Cameron himself states early on in the film: that real science is "way more exciting than any made-up Hollywood special effects." Hopefully this film will help spread the word.

Aliens of the Deep is playing at the Navy Pier IMAX. The official Aliens of the Deep website has a number of still photos to pique your interest, as well as educational resources for any of you noble grade-school science teachers out there.

*Actually, Titanic is only the sixth biggest moneymaker ever, if you account for inflation. But whatever. Anyway, Jim Cameron finally returns to making science fiction nonsense with his next film, an adaptation of the Japanese manga, Battle Angel Alita, slated for a 2007 release.

What the Bleep Do We Know!?
1 of 5 stars
Directed by William Arntz, Betsy Chasse and Mark Vicente.

Some of what you may have heard about this film is true: William Arntz, Betsy Chasse and Mark Vicente's What the Bleep Do We Know!?, an attempt to merge quantum mechanics, neurophysiology and metaphysics, is one of the most thought-provoking films in years. The thing is, for anybody with even the slightest knowledge of either physics or Eastern philosophy, all of those thoughts can be distilled down to "What the bleep is this piece of shit?"

Now, I certainly don't claim to be a physicist or to have attained Enlightenment by any means, but I've read a handful of books on particle physics, cosmology, Taoism, Buddhism... even a bit of New Age bullshit, thanks to former acquaintances whom I hope have since stopped using quite so many hallucinogens. And to put it as plainly as possible, What the Bleep is a self-help book misappropriating language stolen from people who actually knew how to think in order to make itself seem smarter than it is. This is completely misunderstood physics and completely misunderstood philosophy.

The result is nothing more than a poisonous soup of dated, computer generated animation equally evocative of the late '90s Mind's Eye series and PowerPoint presentations, painful dramatic sequences starring Marlee Matlin and featuring sub-porn production values, and a stream of talking heads (none of whose names or credentials are actually given to us during the course of the movie). This lack of names and credentials is, perhaps, to give the impression that the nutjob con artist J.Z. Knight, whose "Ramtha's School of Enlightenment" this film serves as a de facto infomercial for, has as much credibility as, say, Dr. David Albert. Incidentally, Dr. Albert, the Columbia University director of philosophical physics, has disavowed his association with this film because his sound bites were so heavily edited and buried amid such hokum as to seriously misrepresent his views.

As an example of how brain-dead this film is, "Ramtha" -- which is to say J.Z. Knight, who claims to channel the spirit of the 35,000-year-old mystic named Ramtha -- reminds us that Jesus said that "the Kingdom of Heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed," and goes on to explain that quantum mechanics is the only science where that statement can be true. See, because a mustard seed is small. And quantum mechanics is about small things. My jaw literally dropped from the stupidity.

And the movie gets worse from there.

If the nature of the universe and the implications that has on our lives is a subject you have any interest in, do yourself a favor. Read a book.

What the Bleep Do We Know? is playing at the Beverly Arts Center. Michael Keaton liked this movie. I have lost all respect for him.

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About the Author(s)

Gordon McAlpin writes his movie reviews with a red light-up Spy Kids pen, which he thinks is the coolest thing ever, even though he didn't like the movie that much.

If you feel the need to get in touch with him directly, do so at .

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