Saturday, May 31, 2014

Totally Superfluous Movie Review: Alien Resurrection - and Why It's Actually an Early Version of Firefly

After working on a few things around the house last night, I decided to settle in with a movie as I waited for my husband to come home. I looked through my (probably) hundreds of DVDs and Blurays, and just couldn't find anything I was really dying to watch. Then I remembered that I received the Alien movies in a Bluray box set for Christmas last year. I'd watched Alien and Aliens not too long ago, so I didn't feel like watching them again. I occasionally break out Alien 3 just for continuity's sake (not a great movie, but watchable), but never ventured as far as Alien Resurrection.

That dark place is where movies go to die - you must never go there, Simba.
I actually have only seen Alien Resurrection once - when I saw it at the theater on one of my first (and only dates) with my first high school boyfriend. I don't remember enjoying it very much, and I generally enjoy these types of movies. To paraphrase Ash from the first movie, "I admire their purity." They are what they are without any pretense. So I decided it was time for another viewing.

First off - holy crap, this movie was written by Joss Whedon?! How did I never know this before?! And the whacky crew of the Betty? That would be Firefly version 1.0. Seriously. I'll get back to that later. But here's more realizations in a sort of play-by-play as I watched the movie. (Spoilers ahead.)

The scientist performing the surgery at the start of the movie? That would be GrĂ­ma Wormtongue from Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (and the extended cut of Return of the King). The actor, Brad Dourif, was also Billy Bibbit in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Chucky in the Child's Play movies. Dude, my Kevin Bacon game just got a lot more formidable.

Ripley and Sarah Connor from the Terminator movies are definitely cut from the same cloth. Ripley was arguably a bit tougher at the start of the adventure, but still - these two characters have a similar progression from, "Oh, I guess I have to fight" to "Mess with me, and I'll bust your kneecaps with my big toe." The scene where Ripley attacks the scientist while handcuffed reminded me of Sarah's interactions with her psychiatrist in Terminator 2.

And now the crew of the Serenity - er, Betty:

First up, Captain Frank Elgyn, who like Mal is a gun-for-hire. However, whereas Mal is moody but honorable, Elgyn is just sleazy. I don't think anyone is that upset when he's killed off.

Co-pilot Sabra Hillard is kind of a mash-up of Zoe (in the devotion to her captain sense) and Inara (in the love interest sense), but take away any opinions or motivation other than pleasing her man. While the movie itself would pass, I don't think Hillard's character would pass the Bechdel test by any stretch of the concept.

Mechanic Vriess is kind of similar to Wash, in that he lends some goofiness to the story, but has a few attributes of Kaylee as well.

Johner is like a meaner, slightly more violent version of Jayne. The similarity is pretty striking, though. I bet on some distant world, he's celebrated as a folk hero, with his own statue and theme song. He just needs this hat and he's there:

Finally, Annalee Call (played by Winona Rider) is very similar to Kaylee. She's also the final step of the complementary synth progression process that inverts Ripley's badass progression. You see, as Ripley gets more and more badass across the movies, the synths get more and more agreeable and weak.

Movie 1: Ripley has to sing herself a lullaby to kill the alien, Ash tries to murder her with a rolled up porno mag while bleeding whatever that white "blood" is.

Movie 2: Ripley battles the alien queen with a loader, Bishop saves the girl after he was ripped in two and also makes some cheeky comments about humans.

Movie 3: Ripley is the honey badger of the movie, Bishop is unable to even get sympathy for being little more than a bust and begrudgingly complies to Ripley's demand that he recover data from the flight recorder.

Movie 4: Ripley continually kicks ass, Call is like a futuristic PETA protester.

BTW, the only reason Alien Resurrection passes the Bechdel test is because of Call and Ripley. Oh yeah, and the subject of their conversations, these guys:

The Reavers of the Alien Whedonverse
And then there's Purvis, one of the Alien hosts, played by Leland Orser, who has a penchant for playing guys found as a quivering mess of collateral damage from the actions of the bad guy. If you seriously want to talk about type-casting, check out this guy: he's doomed to play his character from Se7en over and over again (he was the collateral damage of the "lust" murder).

Overall, there are definitely some issues with Alien Resurrection, not the least of which is the previously mentioned Bechdel results. It's kind of surprising to me that Joss wrote this, given some of these issues, like the annoying "Careful" warnings of Wren that are more likely to cause Dr. Gediman to slip and kill both Ripley and the Queen than anything else. Or the triteness of the dialogue from General Perez. Or the stereotypical throw down that results from Johner trying to make the moves on Ripley, that are more a thinly veiled attempt to show her badassedness than a display of true human behavior.

To be fair, the concept of writing credit in Hollywood is different from what I tend to deal with in academia - in my field, with some exceptions, the person who does most of the writing gets the most credit (being listed first), and people who do less writing get less credit (being listed after the first author). In Hollywood, the person who gets writing credit may have only done the first draft, which could be substantially rewritten by the time it gets to the final cut. One reason for this exception has to do with writing contracts. Depending on what is in the contract, a rewriter's only reimbursement for his/her time may be monetary, and he/she may not ever be listed as a writer in the opening credits. While rewrites are presumably to improve a script, they may also reduce the quality (see the Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie as an example). So it's possible that the script Joss gave them is very different from what I watched last night.

That being said, the Firefly similarities definitely scream Joss Whedon. The Betty/Serenity crew similarities, the Alien/Reaver similarities, even the message of the film are signature Joss. As I've discussed before, one big message I saw in Buffy is that the monster is often ourselves. While the Aliens are terrifying bad guys with a mission to destroy other life, the true bad guys of the movie are even worse:

What happens when you have endless resources and scientific knowledge, but no sense of morality...
As Ripley and the survivors try to escape the ship, they happen upon a room containing previous Ripley clone failures. And when we saw the final Alien queen, capable of giving live birth (as Dr. Gediman calls, "perfect"), we realize that the multiple clone experiments were not to recreate the perfect Ripley, but rather, the perfect Alien. The final ("successful") Ripley clone is merely a side effect of those attempts. Even more, though they did surgically remove the queen from Ripley, allowing her a chance at survival (and after the revelations I just described, I wonder why they even bothered), they certainly did not offer that possibility to the human cargo sold to them by faux Mal.

While you could argue there is also a pretty literal demonstration of "we are the monsters" in the final Alien hybrid:

throughout the movie, the real monsters are the people. In fact, even in more pure instances of Whedonverse, the super powered bad guys aren't the real monsters. The human beings who make the decision to turn to darkness are much more maligned. Ripley's response when we learn that Call is a synth is probably the most telling: "No human being is that humane." Ripley, who has witnessed - and been a unwitting victim of - more of the dark side of humanity than anyone else, has no more love for this sorry species.

Final verdict - I think if I ever get the urge to watch this movie again, I'll just watch Firefly instead.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Beautiful Asymmetry

Tom Cruise is newsworthy. Not my most surprising revelation, but hear me out. Apparently, everything he does is newsworthy. That “Tom Cruise picks his nose in public” Twitter account is still waiting for its moment to shine. Perhaps that is why, recently, the world was shocked to discover that Tom Cruise has an asymmetrical face.

And people just can't let it go (check out #9). No doubt, countless scholars in the area of psychology and other fields studying physical attractiveness and its impact, had the same reaction as me. “Yes, he does. So do I. So does the person who wrote this article. So do the people reading it.”

Asymmetry is completely natural - arguably more natural and common than the voyeurism so pervasive in our society that it clamors for more articles metaphorically dissecting our favorite celebs. Perhaps, then, what is more surprising than the realization that Tom Cruise’s face is asymmetrical, is the fact that it took this long for anyone to notice.

Researchers in the area of physical attractiveness have found, however, that symmetry is considered attractive to most human beings. So perhaps that is reason that we are shocked to discover that people we consider attractive have “flaws." Beautiful people tend to have a pretty easy lot in life: they get paid more, they are less likely to be found guilty by criminal juries (and if they are found guilty, tend to receive lighter punishments), and mothers are even more affectionate to attractive babies (read more here).

Symmetry is also a sign of good genes, because it means one is less likely to have genetic mutations. You see, symmetry is in essence averageness. In studies where researchers have composited multiple faces together, participants actually rate the composites as more attractive, because these composites average out distinctive features (a crooked nose, eyes that are slightly different sizes, etc.).

The truth is, if you scrutinize any face in isolation of other faces, you will find asymmetry. Want some evidence? Here are pictures of people perceived as being faces of beauty, and rather than just taking in the whole face, start looking at individual features and you'll see it. (Disclaimer: I am in no way saying these people are actually unattractive because of this asymmetry, just showing you it is there.)

First up, Cindy Crawford. Ignore the mole on one side (a pretty obvious instance of asymmetry) and look at the rest. Notice how her left eye (the right side looking at this picture) is slightly higher and larger than her right? This is very typical - the left side of just about anyone's face is usually larger. Also notice her face shape is not quite symmetrical; her left jaw is a bit more square.
Ryan Gosling. Notice that his left eye is lower (actually quite a bit lower) than his right. His nose is crooked, slanted a bit more to the left. And his face shape is also slightly different on his left side than his right.
One more - Marilyn Monroe. I'll admit, this one took me a little longer to see, since in most photos I found she is 1) heavily made up, 2) shot with very strategic shading over one side of her face, and 3) often shot from slightly off-center. Again, her left eye is slightly lower than her right, and the right side of her face is actually a bit narrower than her left.
I feel I've made my point that we're all asymmetrical. But just to belabor it a bit more (and in fairness to our perfectly gorgeous individuals pictured above), I give you one non-celebrity:

This was a Halloween pic, so don't worry - I don't usually have antennae. First, note that my left eye is lower than my right (not just because my head is turned), and my chin is a bit fuller on the left side. The right side of my face is also a bit narrower, just like Ms. Monroe above. Also, note that my left eyebrow has a more pronounced arch than my right. If you could see my ears, you'd probably also notice that one is lower than the other.
The truth is, even people without backgrounds in psychology or research experience have gotten the message that our faces are asymmetrical. Why do you think people talk about being photographed "from my good side"? It may be that one side is truly better than the other, but it's probably more likely having one side in the foreground is better than being photographed head-on. This technique camouflages the asymmetry. Makeup and good shading can also have a strong effect.

But I still haven't totally answered the question about why we may have missed these very human characteristics in celebrities. I'll introduce you to another offspring of this asymmetry work - more fun with averages!

Remember what I said above about composites being perceived as more attractive? Faces in a group photo are also perceived as more attractive than solo faces, for the very same reason. Our brains average across what we see in a picture. So if there are multiple faces, your brain will average across them, making them all seem more symmetrical in your mind's eye.

Where do we tend to see celebrities? When they're all glammed up attending an award show or movie premiere, they tend to be in groups. There are people in the background much of the time. On the other hand, where do we tend to see celebrities walking solo? Tabloids, where they're usually being attacked for their weight, their looks, their lack of makeup, etc. They are out of their usual context, and perhaps as a result, perceived as less attractive.

So what can we learn from this?

That I've perhaps made myself look more attractive by including my photo in the context of attractive celebrities? Maybe, though scrolling down to see my face probably means Ms. Monroe is out of the frame. Instead, you're probably averaging me with the parrot.

Or that if you want to look more attractive on dating websites, you should include a group photo instead of a picture of yourself alone? Again, maybe. I'd love to hear if that actually works (just idle curiosity; no plans on dating profiles anytime soon).

But perhaps the big thing we can learn from this is that, when we are comparing ourselves to celebrities and scrutinizing our own flawed face, that we can be assured that all faces have flaws. Flaws make us human.

Asymmetrically yours,

Monday, May 26, 2014

Trivial Only Post: Random Thoughts about Vampires

I stumbled across an old (but still funny) cartoon about Blade crossing over into the Twilight universe and slaying Edward.  Okay, not actually Edward - they call him Edgar, probably to avoid copyright infringement.  But whatever.  And I thought, "Damn, if only..."

But then I thought, "What makes us think a stake would kill him?  I mean, sunlight doesn't kill him.  Poor writing doesn't kill him.  Bad acting doesn't kill him.  He's seriously immortal, which sounds cool and all, but I don't want it if it means I sparkle."

I've also already discussed (at length here and here) that Buffy the Vampire Slayer is my favorite show.  Of course, I'll be the first to admit the inconsistencies in its approach to vampire lore.  First of all, important vampire characters live longer in sunlight than throwaway characters, almost as if the love (or hatred, or sometimes a little of both) imbues them with additional powers.  One of the Master's goons (or really any character bereft of a name) can be thrown into sunlight and instantly explode, but Spike can sizzle for a full minute before an appendage bursts into flame.  Second, there is marked variation in vampiric gestation.  Some vampires awaken in the morgue (e.g., the vampire at the end of "The Body").  Others awaken on the table or in their casket at the funeral home (e.g., the vampire at the beginning of "Help").  Still others are buried, perhaps for days, before they wake up (e.g., Ford in "Lie to Me").  AND BUFFY ALWAYS KNOWS.  I think I need to watch more Buffy to figure this out...

Trivially yours,