Avatar

We finally made our pilgrimage to a 3D theater to pay our respects to James Cameron’s latest blockbuster creation, Avatar. As a science fiction lover, I wanted to see it as soon as it came out. But I’m also a workaholic and finding the time just wasn’t happening. However, when I read that it was finally going to be replaced in theaters at the end of the coming week I figured it was now or never to see the movie as the director intended, in 3D. After cajoling Debi into it, she agreed to go. She wanted to, but she was unwilling to pay $40.00 for a sitter so we could spend $30.00 to see a movie. The compromise: we took Toren. I don’t think he loved the experience, particularly not the really loud parts, but he likes getting out of the house. He didn’t make a peep the entire 2 hours and 40 minutes of the movie. We got some really strange looks taking our 9 month old son into the theater to see Avatar, but no one complained.

As for the movie… First, the technology behind it really is remarkable. The 3D effect was very cool, though it seemed much more noticeable in the slower sequences when you had a chance to really focus on depth than in the action sequences where there was too much movement to make the 3D effect really matter. The Navi were also very cool, considering they were a combination of computer generation and human actors. And the world of Pandora was spellbinding. The luminescence was absolutely stunning, especially in combination with the 3D. What a remarkable feat of human ingenuity to create a visual experience like that.

As far as the movie goes, I enjoyed it. It’s not the most amazing story ever, but certainly compelling in its own right. The best part about it is that it takes place in an utterly believable alternate world. Of course, what I mean by that is not that the supernatural elements of Avatar are believable, but assuming a suspension of belief, it is a well-developed alternative reality. And the quality of film production made it possible to disappear into the alternative reality of Pandora for nearly 3 hours and not realize what was happening. I loved that.

The story was good, with its respective twists – just enough people dying to make it believable but not so many that you consider it a full-on tragedy. The take home message – don’t spoil the beauty of nature – is a good one, that I support. And I’m even fond of the criticism of corporations, though the irony is funny: a corporation (20th Century Fox) made the movie possible; no corporations, no Avatar. But certainly corporations can be driven by greed and many are. Maybe that will change one day. The tie-in with the situation with the Native Americans was also nice, though I think the Navi took their “Native American-ness” a bit too far, unnecessarily. It wasn’t really a bad thing, but it also wasn’t necessary to make the Navi full-on Native American.

I’ll be intrigued to see if this film does change the movie industry, permanently. It did get us to the theater, and we rarely go to the theater, preferring to watch movies at home where they are much, much cheaper. I’m not sure we’d go just for 3D in the future, especially if it’s just a character-driven film. But it is experience-enhancing. Anyway, anyone else want to comment on Avatar?

Star Trek

So, it turns out Debi and I aren’t the only Star Trek fans in Tampa.  We weren’t interviewed by Fox 13, but saw all of these people being interviewed when we went last night.  As far as the movie goes, it’s very good, but somewhat problematic as far as the Star Trek time line goes.  However, we were duly impressed at how well this film integrated the quirks of the original characters into the new actors.  The new cast is also very good.  I hear there’s another movie in the mix, probably depending on how well this does in the theaters.  I guess we’ll see.  Maybe next time Debi, Toren, and I will dress up!

Halloween 2006
Halloween 2006

The Happening

I used to write reviews of all the movies I watched.  Now, that honor is reserved for very specific movies, either movies I really, really like, movies on Mormonism, or movies that are so terrible someone has to say something.  The Happening, the latest of M. Night Shyamalan’s film disasters, falls into the last category – terrible, terrible, terrible.  I’m going to keep this short and to the point: Mr. Shyamalan knows nothing, absolutely nothing, about science.  The Happening is the perfect illustration of using a tiny bit of pseudoscientific bullcrap to scare people.  It belongs in the same category as Biblical Creationism, especially since it uses the same tactics as creationists to make its arguments.

The basic gist of the story: plants revolt, releasing a deadly toxin that makes humans kill themselves.  The wind some how triggers the plants to release the toxin, but only when there are large groups of people around, except at the end, when it kills small groups of people or even just individuals. Why the change?  Um, plot point?

Why does this happen?  According to the story, because humans aren’t taking care of the planet.  So, the plants revolt and kill humans.  And, according to Shyamalan, this is all based on sound evidence, because, well, “studies have been done.”  That phrase is used a good half dozen times or so to justify things like: (1) plants can sense the presence of humans and respond to human voices, (2) plants can willfully evolve new toxins during their lifetime, and (3) plants can be triggered to release those newly evolved toxins by atmospheric factors.  Unfortunately for Mr. Shyamalan, what he is proposing has already been debunked by actual science.  His “evolution” is actually Lamarckian evolution, the poster boy of the Soviet Union’s failed biology program, which actually proposed that living things evolve during their lifetime based on environmental pressures and pass those traits on.  This is not how evolution works.  The story in the movie could not and will not ever happen.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m all for suspending disbelief for a story for entertainment value.  I really enjoy superhero movies and sci-fi.  But using pseudoscientific babble to try to scare people and claiming it is based on real science is immoral.  The movie goes so far as to use the classic creationist ploy, “It’s just a theory,” as a plot device.  FYI, in science, a theory is not “just a theory” (i.e., someone’s pet idea); a theory is backed by empirical evidence and has withstood repeated testing.  The last non-scientific issue that really got both Debi and me as we watched this drivel was having “scientists” claim “this is a ‘natural’ event” and “science can’t explain it.”  Mr. Shyamalan can take a bow for contributing to the scientific illiteracy of the US, which now ranks below average compared to other OECD countries on science reasoning.

Alas, the damn movie made money, which means this retard gets to keep on making movies.  The only positive thing I can say about this movie is that I didn’t pay for it (except for with my time).  Combine this trash with Lady in the Water and I think I have officially written off M. Night Shyamalan as a filmmaker of any merit.

The Polar Express

Then we topped off the night with the absolutely awful movie “The Polar Express.” Awful? Yep, awful! And I’m not just saying this because the whole idea behind the movie is to get people to believe something that is patently not true – Santa Claus (yes, I have issues with people believing things that are not true). A bigger issue is that the movie is just poorly written and not compelling. In the course of what could very well be 2 hours in movie time (not viewing time), 3 or 4 kids become best friends and all have character arcs that are completely unbelievable (the girl becomes a leader, the poor boy comes to trust in others, and the main character learns to believe… in Santa and ghosts – Wizard of Oz style). But there is no attempt to develop these characters to make the character arcs believable – no background development, very little talking, etc. The story is basically just a series of pointless conflicts designed to keep the audience’s attention because people could die, even though you know no one will die – this is a Christmas movie after all! All of the action sequences should have been thrown out and the story should have focused on the characters. But, no, instead we have unbelievable character arcs (because there is no character development) with lots of pointless action. Some of the sequences seemed to be included just to highlight the animation capabilities of the animators.

To top it off, there is a song in the film that is just offensive. The poor boy, Billy (his name is the only one I remember), starts singing about how Christmas sucks because he’s poor and never gets anything. The girl joins in, turning it into a duet. But, rather than sympathize with him, she says, “So what! Christmas is great for me because I have decorations and presents and food and family.” Really! Listen to the exchange. It’s a “I’m not poor so I don’t give a crap about your sucky Christmases and you should value Christmas anyway, regardless of your socioeconomic status” song. Touching, huh? I came away from the movie thinking, “Was this an attempt by retailers to create a new myth surrounding Christmas that encourages consumption?” The moral of The Polar Express: Christmas IS the new religion. What a dumb movie… It’s bad enough, though, that you can laugh at how bad it is and come away from the movie having enjoyed making fun of it. Even so, I don’t recommend it.

Lorenzo’s Oil

I don’t review most of the movies I watch these days, but I do review some and I rate all of them on IMDB. Anyway, this isn’t my review, it’s Debi’s. If you’re familiar with the premise of Lorenzo’s Oil, you can skip to Debi’s review. If not, here’s the quick of it:

A boy named Lorenzo is diagnosed with adrenoleukodystrophy, a nuero-degenerative disorder that ultimately leads to death. His parents, who are not scientists, are frustrated by the lack of research and information on the condition, so they hit the books and come up with a special mix of oils that seem to help. The movie is based on a true story.

So, why the review? Well, Debi, as you may well know, is a genetic counselor. We picked up the movie because she wanted to know a bit more about this condition and had heard of the movie from some of her patients (the condition is genetic). Besides Nick Nolte’s awful portrayal of an English speaking Italian and Susan Sarandon successfully portray a real bitch of a woman, the acting isn’t too bad (especially the boy who played Lorenzo). But the movie has some serious, serious problems. With that introduction, here’s Debi’s review:

I had heard that Lorenzo’s oil was no silver bullet, but wanted to know for myself because it was referenced on a listserv of one of the patient support groups for a different genetic condition. Someone was using it to spur parents on to help find their own cures. The parent was frustrated and felt the doctors working on that condition didn’t care enough about the patients and were not doing anything to find a cure for the condition. The parent started giving her kids vitamin supplements and swore that they did amazing things. I understand parents’ frustration when there are no answers, but I don’t think it is fair to state that physicians do not care. What really bothered my about the statement from the listserv is that the parent was making an unfounded claim: I can’t say one way or the other whether the vitamins help because there have been no randomized controlled trials, which brings me to my first point about Lorenzo’s Oil:

  • I agree that Lorenzo’s oil is a “story of high hopes that a cure for an awful disease was at hand in Lorenzo’s oil… A side-effect was to make randomised trials impossible, so that a decade and more on we’re still guessing whether this treatment has any benefit for anyone with this condition. It is not possible to say that it does. It is possible to say that it does not, at least for patients with established neurological symptoms.€

Let me explain. Because of the publicity and approach of Lorenzo’s parents, the Odones, most kids diagnosed with adrenoleukodystrophy end up on the oil. Because it is not possible to compare their outcomes with outcomes of people not on the oil supplement, it cannot be stated for certain that the oil helps. It seems to, but without a double-blind, controlled, scientific study, that is not something you can say with 100% certainty.
This answers the question I had as to why Lorenzo’s oil has not been approved by the FDA. (Until it is approved, availability is limited and insurance often does not cover the cost because it is considered experimental). There is not enough clear evidence for how well it works. The limited research that has been done supports the following (for details see the link above):

  • Lorenzo’s oil rapidly reduces very long chain (C26:0) fatty acids in plasma to normal or near normal levels.
  • Very long chain fatty acids in the brain appear unaffected in postmortem studies (probably because of the blood brain barrier).
  • In patients with neurological symptoms, use of Lorenzo’s oil is not associated with any reduction of symptoms or delay in disease progression.
  • There is limited evidence that use of Lorenzo’s oil in asymptomatic disease carriers may (repeat MAY) reduce the onset of symptoms.

Now as long as something is not harmful (though there are many ways something can be harmful including physical harm, emotional harm due to false hopes, and even financial harm), I am not necessarily against it, even if it has not been rigorously proven. What I do have a problem with is that the movie Lorenzo’s oil vilified those people who raised concerns about the possible harm. This brings me to my second and final concern with the movie:

  • Lorenzo’s oil, the movie, is harmful to science and medicine because it vilifies people who are trying to protect others.

There are several scenes in the movie in which the Odone’s are portrayed as the heroes while the doctors and the people who are listening to the doctors are villified. The doctors are portrayed as being solely interested in studying the children with the disease and not curing them. Additionally, the doctors and scientists are portrayed as not working very hard on a cure and are hesitant to accept the findings of the Odones. This is particularly irksome because science is, by its nature, skeptical. That is what makes it such a powerful tool. It basically says, “I won’t believe what you say until you can prove it. And, you have to play by my rules – because these rules actually result in proof.” The movie presents a one-sided critique of that model without pointing out all of the amazing benefits to human society that have resulted from the scientific approach to studying our world and ourselves. Additionally, the doctors wanted to help and protect people and did not want to provide them with false hope, which is kind of what the Odones did with their approach.
In short, while the movie is both provocative and touching, it does a disservice to science by negatively portraying the standards employed by science in conducting research. Sure, it’s an interesting story, but it’s also misleading and disingenuous.