Aliens of the Deep (review)

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Sea to Believe

There’s lots of scientists who study neat-o things like marine seismology and astrobiology in Aliens of the Deep, James Cameron’s new 3-D IMAX movie, and they all say things like “Cool!” and “Wow!” and “Awesome!” a lot. Not that it’s not justified, cuz they’re like two and a half miles down in the ocean in science-fictiony mini submarines checking out landscapes that look downright lunar, and any geek worth her telescope has dreamed about walking on the moon or Mars or Somewhere Else other than Earth.
So it is very cool, and the scientists are all very passionate about their work, which I love seeing: people excited about geeky science stuff. Cameron’s idea (he directed with Steven Quale, and produced, and shot stuff, too) was to put researchers and theorists who don’t normally visit the ocean floor but whose work could benefit from it into those subs, and their excitement is contagious. I started thinking the film’s title was metaphorical — you know, we are the aliens of the deep, fragile humans in a hostile environment, et cetera — and then: Wow! Aliens! No, I mean really, creatures like nothing you’ve ever seen before: an achingly beautiful diaphanous thing waving in the water that makes one scientist wonder how something like that can even be alive; a blobby critter that you can’t tell which side is up on, that looks like a squishy plush toy or some pal of Pokemon’s; an octopus that, okay, doesn’t look all the alien but is clearly demonstrating some real smarts, genuine intelligent curiosity about the little robot camera called Jake that’s exploring away from the subs. It’s enough to give you chills, seeing how amazing these animals are and realizing that most of the surface of the Earth is two miles down under water and who knows what the hell else is down there that we don’t know about.

It’s all so…neat. I love IMAX movies anyway — there’s something extra movieish about the enormous screen and the big big sound — and this one just immerses you in its exotic environment in a way that makes you wish it would never end.

“I love this stuff,” says Cameron (Ghosts of the Abyss, Titanic) — he’s right there in the subs, too, and wouldn’t you be if you had the chance? Cool toys and real exploration in the only place left on Earth that hasn’t been completely explored: “This is way more exciting than any made-up Hollywood special effects,” Cameron drools, and he’s right. Aliens of the Deep later invokes Cameron’s own film The Abyss, but this is a lot more thrilling, knowing it’s real — the black smokers, nutrient chimneys venting energy from the magma below the ocean floor, feeding a world without sunlight, and the mostly colorless but beautiful creatures that live there, like the vent worms with their vaguely naughty-looking red plumes, and the vent shrimp (mmmm, vent shrimp…).

It couldn’t have been planned, of course, but some of those vistas of the seafloor bring to mind the new images we’re seeing from the surface of Titan. But there is a deliberate connection made by the film between outer space and the remote reaches of the ocean, adding another dimension to engage the geeky imagination. As astrobiologist Kevin Hand points out in the film — he’s practically the star, after all the marvelous animals, with his infectious enthusiasm — we’re pretty sure there’s a liquid-water ocean under the icy surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa, and exploring our own oceans will help us plan for the eventual exploration of Europa’s. And whether the possibility of alien life on that distant moon is news to you or not, you’ll leave Aliens of the Deep fired up for us to get going off this rock already.

It may seem like a strange juxtaposition to some, looking at weird fish and making a plea for new deep-space missions, but that’s precisely why we need more visionaries like Cameron pointing out that they’re not all that different, that it’s merely expanding the radius of the circle of life a bit, and that in the end, it’ll only help us understand ourselves all the better.

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