Popcorn Biology: Avatar (2009)


The Smurfs get an upgrade.

Avatar, the highest grossing film of all time, adorated by legions of fanboys and hated by some intellectuals, especially directors who aren’t as rich as James Cameron. My verdict? In the middle: the story and characters are of course pretty bland and forgettable (and also a rip-off of Pochaontas, as everybody noticed) and the movie was probably too long, but the special effects are of course the most spectacular ever seen, and the action scenes are great. If you want a couple of hours of mindless, stupid, brightly coloured fun then Avatar is for you. Many also praise the supposedly very creative design of the creatures of this fantasy world; while some beasts are indeed cool to watch (especially the flying ones), to me many others seem just a lazy effort to make normal animals look weird only by adding a couple extra limbs and some featherish..things. Also, the color pattern of some animals seems to have been chosen pretty poorly (they look like they have taken part in some wild paintball battle). On the other hand, many people complained that the Na’vi were too human-like, but this didn’t bother me; yes, a weird and improbable example of extreme evolutionary convergence, but I can understand the decision to make the aliens look like us, since they’re the focus of the whole film and we have to empathize with them.And it’s not like the rest of Pandora is much more reality-based anyway.

Speaking of which, I digress. This is Popcorn Biology, I should criticize the biological aspects of this movie: a difficult task, as they are many, and many fanboys of the film have probably analyzed them in detail for years. I’ll do my best.

The first thing, the one that bothers me the most, is that for some reason humans can’t breath Pandora’s atmosphere. Which is incredibly odd since Pandora is largely covered in forests, made of trees with an uncanny resemblance to Earth’s trees (another extreme case of convergent evolution?). They’re green, ergo they have chlorophyll, ergo they do photosynthesis, ergo they produce oxygen. A lot of trees means a lot of oxygen, at least during the day.

Though, to be fair, it’s revealed that, in spite of their appearence, the trees of Pandora are quite different from ours, as they communicate with each other through electric and chemical signals, which means they have an equivalent of neurons, I guess. The trees and the animals of the planet are linked in a gigantic neural net, which of course is a concept inspired by James Lovelock’s Gaia “hypothesis”, which is less of an hypothesis and more of a vague metaphor made to capture the imagination of common people. I think that this SMBC cartoon explains my point perfectly.

Of course people tend to think of plants as a background, and focus on animals. What about the animals of Pandora? Well, as I’ve already said, they’re weirdly colored, as if the evolution on that planet didn’t give a fuck about camouflage, on the contrary of what happens here on Earth (no convergent evolution in this case?). Pandoran animals shown in the movie anyway are pretty big: maybe they don’t care about camouflage,, and on the other hand have evolved a system of communication based on colours and vision. The hypothesis is reinforced by the fact that most of them are also bioluminescent. On a side note, most Pandoran plants are bioluminescent too: do they need it to attract pollinators, or to lure the animals for some other reason? Who knows.

I’ve noticed that many animals on Pandora seem to have a respiratory system based on multiple tracheas that open directly on their chest. Maybe this is an adaptation to make possible their big size: enormous animal, especially erbivores, need to eat constantly enormous quantities of food; if they had to breath through the mouth (they’re not really technical tetrapods, so we’ll just assume that it’s possible that they can’t breath through the nose – do they even have a nose?) they would be forced to regularly interrupt their feeding not to die suffucated. This way, they can eat continuously without interruption, thus being a lot more efficient. It’s interesting to note that snakes have a similar adaptation to solve a different problem: they have to swallow the whole prey, so their mouth is occupied by food for relatively long periods of time; not to suffucate, their trachea is extended in their mouth, under the food, and it’s rigid so it stays open and able to breath even when the mouth is full.

The fact that most vertebrate animals of Pandora (although technically they’re not vertebrates, nor animals: they don’t share any common ancestor with animals, since they’re alien organisms) have six legs puzzles me. As I’ve said before, the creators of the movies designed them to be very similar to real animals (in this case tetrapods, especially mammals) in their shape and movement; so, since they move exactly like four legged animals, what’s the advantage of an additional pair of legs? The answer is: none. On the contrary, there are disadvantages: let’s put aside the fact that it would be more difficult ot coordinate them, every additional limb has a cost in term of energy and resources used to create and feed it: if it’s not useful (and in this case it’s not, since we’ve already estabilished that these six-legged aliens move in the exact same way of their four-legged counterparts on Earth), natural selection will make it “disappear”.

Speaking of legs, one of the nerdy criticisms about the human-like appearence of the Na’vi was that they only have two arms and two legs, while the rest of the fauna have 6 legs. I’ll defend Avatar on this one: first of all, this criticism sounds like “Most mammals have a tail, so humans should have a tail too to be considered mammals” (ironically, Na’vi do have a tail). Most important, the creators of the movie actually show a possible “evolutionary sequence” for the loss of limbs: a group of what are called “Prolemurs”, monkey-like creatures, still have sik legs, but the first two pairs are fused from the shoulder to the elbow. So in the Na’vi, other primate-like creatures, the fusion of the 4 arms to form 2 was complete. Maybe they evolved this way for the reason I explained in the previous paragraph, but it’s kind of strange, considering that they’re probably the only “vertebrates” on Pandora that could actually be advantaged by an extra pair of limbs, seeing how they have hands to grab and manipulate things. Oh, well.

Wow. That was long. Consider it a gift for the end of the year. I’m going to Rome for the holidays, so my blogging for the next seven days may be discontinuous to nonexistent (again). Happy new year folks, see ya in 2012.


Popcorn Biology: Ferocious Planet (2010)

Ferocious Planet

One has to admit that the poster is pretty cool.

Welcome back to Popcorn Biology, where I try to analyze sci-fi movies (old or new, awesome or silly) and their often bizarre and of course not entirely correct take on the world of biology. This time, we have a low budget tv movie called Ferocious Planet; and while maybe it isn’t Alien, it certainly is a lot more fun and surprisingly much more well done than the average SharkacondaCroctopus mess regoularly dropped by SyFy. Hell, sometimes it’s even quite smart, when it’s not too busy being silly. But enough with the review, let’s dig into the science.

An experiment gone awfully wrong transports a group of people in a parallel dimension that was being studied because it was very similar to Earth. And boy… it is similar. Like, the plants are totally Earth plants. The miracle of convergent evolution, I guess: organisms that doesn’t have a common ancestor (or aren’t even from the same dimension) look completely identical to our gymnosperms and ferns. Yeah, I call “bullshit” on that. Not even convergent organisms from the same planet and with a common ancestor look completely identical – how could organisms that evolved in separate dimensions? There’s even a polypore mushroom on the bark of a tree, and a woman that is supposedly the scientist of the group manages to make like 3 mistakes in the same sentence: first she identifies it as an Amanita muscaria, a species that doesn’t even remotely resemble a polypore mushroom, then she says that the common name for A. muscaria is “mushroom” (yeah, whatever), and last but not least, she assumes that this is indeed a mushroom, while we’ve already made clear that, since we’re in a separate dimension, this must be a completely different organism that look like a mushroom because of extreme convergent evolution.

One would assume that animal-like creatures too would be so incredibly similar to Earth animals, but the film needs an antagonist and so, while they certainly are vertebrates and share traits with the tetrapods, the inhabitants of this “ferocious planet” are huge, scary monsters bent on devouring every single human. There’s quite a lot of these things (unusual for this kind of cheap tv movie – hats off to the creators), and the design is not bad at all, except the puzzling presence of what appears to be a huge sack full of testicles on the tail of the animal. It’s quite bizarre that this is the only and one animal species we see in the movie: they’re clearly superpredators, they’re very common – where the fuck is their food? Where are are herbivores and small carnivores? How can a gigantic predator be so common and its preys so scarce? It’s kind of an inverted trophic pyramid.

The beast lays eggs of different sizes – why? Different castes? We see only two kinds of monster in the film, the young and the adult, and this doesn’t seem to be an eusocial animal anyway, so there’s no reason to think it has castes. Also I don’t remember of any terrestrial animal, castes or not, that lays eggs of wildly different sizes, but I may be mistaken – and let’s not forget we’re talking about aliens, after all. But I digress. Do the eggs grow during their development? That would be ridiculous, and even more ridiculous considering that they have an extremely rigid shell. That’s another mistery. The beast also have ammonia in its blood, which for some reason is said to be an acid by another scientist (it’s a weak base). WTF?

Anyway, give this little movie a shot. It’s obviously stupid, and yet much better than one would expect.

Popcorn Biology: Horror Express (1972)

By Francesco Lami

BOO, motherfucker!

Original poster (taken from themoviedb.org)

Popcorn Biology! No, I’m not going to write about corn genetics, as I’m by no means Barbara McClintock; instead, this new section will represent the love child of two of my greatest passions: biology and cinema. I’ll take a look at some sci-fi movies, old and new, and comment their interpretation of the wonderful world of living beings.

Today, we’ll talk about Horror Express, a nice little old-school movie about space monkeys that rape your brain. Oh, and Christopher Lee is involved. Nice.

Christopher Lee is an anthropologist (much like the other guy who will eventually show up and write something on this blog) who discovers an important fossil of a filthy monkey-man from the past, which could reveal some new, precious information about human evolution. I’d like to stop here for a minute and underline that, while the movie is pretty silly and the science in it is predictably and astonishingly bad, it’s remarkably pro-evolution and pro-science, and the only religious character in it is a negative, albeit hilarious, one. Seriously, it was pretty cool when Chris Lee treated like a retarded moron a woman who said that evolution was an immoral theory. Take that, creationists. Dracula is on our side. Which explains why he can’t stand christian symbology.

Anyway, what predictably happens is that the monkey-man escapes from the rock (ice?) in which it had been trapped for two millions of years and start killing people. Now, to be fair, the monkey was possessed by an incorporeal alien super-intelligence, but this doesn’t explain how the heck it survived for millions of years unaltered in a rock and then escaped, as later is shown that all the beings possessed by said intelligence can be easily killed by conventional methods. So yeah, this must mean that sooner or later we are bound to find a living T-Rex trapped into a rock somewhere. Palaeontologists take note.

But that’s not the worst part. Dracula concludes that the monkey kills its victims by draining their memories and stealing all their thoughts. How did he guess that? He examined the brains of the victims and saw that they were as smooth “as a baby’s bottom” and, of course, everybody knows that the convoluted topography of the human cortex is a result of years and years of life memories that sculpt themselves into the brain. It’s not like that, I dunno, the cortex is convoluted so it can cover a much larger area in a small place and thus making us intelligent without having planet-sized heads. That shit is totally out. But that’s not the worst part.

At some point they kill the monkey (well, actually it’s an ape, but in a movie like this who cares) and decide to examine its eye. They squeeze some eye goo on a microscope slide and put it under a microscope and… they find, recorded into the eye goo, all the images the alien intelligence previously stored into the monkey had seen during its long life, including dinosaurs, pterosaurs and Earth from space. You know, I was going to complaint about the dated reconstruction of the dinos, but then I realized that that wasn’t the biggest problem with this scene. Yes, neuroscientists all over the world, the key to visual memory is apparently the vitreous humour! Fuck the brain, just squeeze some eye goo on a microscope slide and enjoy the show!

And those are only the three major problems with Horror Express‘ science. But you know what? It’s not a documentary, it’s a silly old-school horror movie, and a pretty funny one too. So I recommend you all to watch it and have a good laugh, and in the next installment of Popcorn Biology we’ll address some other examples of bad science in sci-fi movies!