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Laramie Movie Scope:
Aliens of the Deep (IMAX 3D)

Images of creatures like no others on earth

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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March 29, 2005 -- “Aliens of the Deep” is a fascinating look at the rare, strange forms of life existing on our planet which do not depend on the sun to sustain them. As fantastic as these creatures are, the most entertaining thing about this film is how it shows the pure joy of discovery at the very heart of science. It shows us the child inside every scientist and explorer.

Until a very few years ago, all known forms of life and all ecosystems derived their food directly or indirectly from the sun. You know the drill. Plants use photosynthesis to grow and convert carbon dioxide to oxygen. Animals eat the plants and breathe the oxygen given off by the plants. Plants use the carbon dioxide given off by the animals. Round and round it goes, but it all depends on the sun. Then scientists found ecosystems under the oceans which are entirely independent of the sun. Microbes at crushing depths and bone-chilling cold of the ocean depths derive their energy and sustenance from the heat and chemicals boiling out of volcanic vents called “black smokers.” Other plants and animals, in turn live off the microbes and the heat, forming an ecosystem founded not on photosynthesis, but on heat and “chemosynthesis.”

Recently, yet another ecosystem founded on heat and chemosynthesis was discovered, but one using different chemicals and a different heat source, one caused by a chemical reaction between minerals and sea water. This colony, called “The Lost City,” has stalagmite-like mineral spires up to 300 feet tall and over 30,000 years old. Some of the life forms found in these two environments are as different from the more common forms of life on earth as might be found on Mars. The discovery of these kinds of life made it clear that life is much more opportunistic and tenacious than previously thought. It means that life on Europa, a moon of Jupiter, might be possible because Europa is thought to have oceans and it may well have undersea thermal vents like those on earth. Life is possible on Europa despite the fact that it is a frozen world on the surface and sunlight there is very weak.

The increased possibility of life on other worlds is what has brought National Aeronautics and Space Administration scientists to such odd places as the ocean floor and ice caves in Alaska. They are looking for “extremophiles,” life forms that can live in the most extreme conditions on earth. Here's where we catch up with a happy confluence of marine biologists, astrobiologists, explorers and filmmakers, led by James Cameron, who directed “Titanic,” “Aliens” and “Terminator.” Cameron, who studied physics in college, is an avid explorer, as well as a great film director. If you want to see Cameron at work, watch this film, he's all over it, piloting subs, operating cameras, generally running things, and having a blast finding new creatures in the depths.

First up is the the undersea colony called “The Lost World,” a place that has been described as looking like “a conglomeration of colossal beehives from outer space.” One of the fascinating creatures seen is a filmy, almost transparent creature with some kind of veins in its skin. It is kind of like a jellyfish, but much simpler. It is as alien-looking as the giant tube worms that live near the black smokers. In the Guaymas Basin in the Sea of Cortez, the team found formations that looked like giant mushrooms, 20 feet across. They were formed by hot water rising from volcanic vents and forming a flat layer of hot water on the underside of a rock overhang. From below, there is a reflection, like the surface of a lake. The filmmakers said these formations had never been photographed before.

The film gives the audience a close-up look at the dense, swarming, teaming masses of life that live around the volcanic vents, including blind shrimp that whisk in, out and around the 700-degree plumes of the black smokers. In addition to the standard Reality Camera System (RCS) digital cameras inside and outside the submarines, there is also a camera mounted on a remotely-controlled submersible robot called Jake, designed by Cameron's brother, Mike. Jake can get into tight spots the large vehicles can't reach. The IMAX 3D effect is amazing. It puts you right into the middle of the action. It is far superior to the cheaper 3D technology that uses those glasses with red and blue lenses. The 3D effect creates a more compelling visual experience. It is a lot more like being there than just watching pictures taken by someone who was there.

My only problems with the film are that it is too short, at 47 minutes, and it is deficient in structure and exposition. I could have watched a lot more of it. There are lots of “wow” images, but they are accompanied by a minimal explanation of the geography, geology, chemistry and biology behind these phenomena. It is more like a bunch of photos thrown into a box than an organized photo album. In addition to the undersea footage, there is an animated segment about what a space vehicle sent to Europa might look like and how it might function. It was a pretty neat little vignette, reminiscent of an earlier Cameron film, “The Abyss,” which also featured deep sea aliens. Unfortunately, it will probably be at least 20 years before there is a Europa probe, if it happens at all.

It was great fun to see how much fun everyone was having on these voyages of exploration. You could see how excited and happy everyone was to be there. That is no accident, of course, the scientists selected for the film were chosen because they are young, enthusiastic, articulate and attractive, but hey, it works. They are definitely having a blast checking out these weird life forms. I wish I could hitch a ride on one of those trips. In the meantime, this film is the next best thing. It rates a B.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in video and/or DVD format, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2005 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)