Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Scotland walled off from England, in the movies at least

Well, is there any reason that England should turn back history and wall of Scotland? History buffs will probably blog about this, but that is how the current genre bio-horror thriller “Doomsday” begins. The film is directed by Neil Marshall, and was shot around Glasgow, London, with some outdoor scenes both in South Africa and southern California. The distributor is “Rogue Pictures” (formerly part of October Films and Gramercy Pictures) but now a division of Universal Focus, which plays the same role in Universal as Screen Gems does with Sony/Columbia.

First, and as to the theme of this blog, the “Wissenschaft.” A smallpox-like virus appears in Glasgow on April 3, 2008 (we just have a week or so, folks) and within a week almost everyone is dead. England, first declaring martial law, quarantines all of Scotland and builds a 30-foot steel “Wall of China” (a kind of sci-fi "Hadrian's Wall"). By 2035, Scotland has turned into a world of “Life After People.” But then the virus breaks out in Central London, and the Brits try control the population by monitoring the flood gates on the Thames. Some researchers go back to Scotland and try to get material for a vaccine.

All of this ignores the extremely violent and presto-paced, frantic nature of the film, denying the need for attention span. There is a little bit of society left in Scotland after all; some of it has degenerated to cannibalism (there is one horrific ritual scene), and others have survived with natural immunity and have started building a feudal, low-tech knighthood-like society that echos the Middle Ages, literally of the Glazounov Suite. (Sorry, the only classical music in the movie is Offenbach’s Can-Can, which precedes the bizarre ritual.) One of the survivors says “I earned my right to live by natural selection.” That is, he earned his rights by surviving "The Purification." In fact, the researchers (aka fighters, led by actress Caryn Peterson, who even “wears” the artificial eye camera) journey back into time in technology (an idea I experiment with in my Project Greenlight “Baltimore Is Missing” screenplay), commandeering a steam engine train in an impressive outdoor (justifying 2.35:1) sequence with Scottish scenery. For the car chases (moving back ahead) it looks like either southern California or South Africa, or both. In the film’s final acts, the concept is more about mixing levels of technology within one scene in layered fashion, a somewhat original visual concept.

The movie really does throw all movie genres into the kitchen sink: the Mad Max movies (Australia), the “28 Days” movies (Britain), the King Arthur genre, and a bit of (female) James Bond in the car chase at the end. (I could even add Stephen King’s “The Stand”). In the end, one wonders about the idea of making a “statement” about the grave risk to civilization from a super-flu or super-pox pandemic. Maybe the directors are willing to leave that task to the History Channel’s mega-disaster series, and really want to entertain us. Lots of body parts roll in this one. The credits are longer than for any other “indie” “low budget” film I have ever seen. This “indie” flick probably cost about $30 million to make. I wonder if it has made money.

Other possible comparisons are "I Am Legend" (2007), ABC's "Bird Flu in America" (2005), and Hallmark's "Pandemic" (2007).

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Cloud, from Germany: a super Chernobyl rehearsal

The Cloud (“Die Wolke”), 2006, directed by Gregor Schnitzler, story and spec script by Jane Ainscough, distributed by Concorde, is a curious disaster movie from Germany that has not gotten much showing in the US. It was shown at the Goethe Institute in Washington as part of the DC Environmental Film Festival of 2008. "Cloud" is an interesting title for a movie; one of Claude Debussy's Images is called "Nuages" but this movie is not misty and dreamy.

What’s curious about this film is its narrative and storytelling paradigm. It presents appealing and likeable upper middle class kids in Germany somewhere near Frankfurt. European kids may outperform American ones, but they taunt their biology teacher, throw house parties, drive fast cars, and rebel against their parents. The film looks big, pseudo-Hollywood and green, shot 2.35:1, and it seems to toy with the audience for a twenty minutes. What’s up? Of course, most people who come to see this film know what it is: a super Three Mile Island, a super Chernobyl, will kill 38000 people nearby. Elmar (Franz Dinda) and Hannah (Paula Kalenberg) are rather like Romeo and Juliet (one could imagine a younger Di Caprio as Elmar). They exchange handwritten messages (forget the text kind on cell phones) during a test and get away with it, and are kissing in the hall on test time, when the sirens go off. What’s odd is that Elmar knows almost immediately that this isn’t just a test, that it’s bad news.

We hear a lot about duct tape and evacuation. Although the evacuations look orderly at first, they quickly breakdown, with some teenage rebellion. It doesn’t take long before the circumstances are desperate. The picturesque Bavarian-like town that they live in gets overrun by escaped cattle, for example. The movie could be compared to this year’s “Right at your Door” (see Sept. 2, 2007 on this blog). Hannah winds up in quarantine in a hospital. Quickly she develops radiation sickness, and goes bald. (From pre-production you can see the buzz-cut; in real radiation poisoning there would be no stubble at all.) Elmar has “escaped” the quarantine but finds her. There is talk that they can contaminate each other (I don’t know if that is possible). But soon, Elmar notices what look like Kaposi’s Sarcoma lesions on his chest. Apparently he, too, was exposed to radiation when fleeing, and his immune system was destroyed, so his prognosis will mimic the development of AIDS. The remainder of the film will chronicle what life they have left together. But it’s interesting to see how Elmar goes from headstrong teen to an altruistic soul.

In the meantime, television is pumping stories about the mass deaths, and government plans to gradually resettle the area. Life will never the be same, and the disaster seems to be turning Germany into an almost communistic state.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

National Geographic: Naked Science: Glacier Meltdown

On Sunday, March 9, right after “Aftermath: Population Zero” (previous review), the National Geographic Channel broadcast “Naked Science: Glacier Meltdown.” The NG link is here.

This was one of the most compelling programs yet. The program discussed both Greenland (with about 500,000 cubic miles of ice) and Antarctica (with about 5,500,000 cubic miles). In 2001, there had been a prediction that global warming would cause sea levels to rise about 3 feet in the century. But 2003 even the predictions were getting more dire. Ice is sliding off of Greenland the way an ice cube slides on a surface once the surface is wet – kids try it in high school physics labs as a friction experiment. In Antarctica, ice shelves are splitting because of direct melting. The predictions rose to about a 20 foot rise, and then eventually to a possible 150 foot rise in sea levels by 2100 if worst case scenarios occurred. It used to be that the permanent ice in the Arctic would cover the area of the United States; now that area is reduce to that west of the Mississippi River.

Ice core analysis show that climate can indeed vary, but analysis presented in the film (very much as in Al Gore’s film “An Inconvenient Truth”) shows that human activity since the industrial revolution has certainly accelerated it. Another great danger is that as more ice shelf melts, the albedo of the Earth is reduced, and warming accelerates even more, since the Earth is darker. Maybe something like this happened to Venus a billion or so years ago. (By the way, some evidence suggests that Venus may have overheated relatively quickly and “recently”, maybe just a few hundred million years ago.)

The film predicted more north Atlantic hurricanes, and noted that northern hurricanes have relatively higher wind shear in the northeastern quadrant. A major hurricane in New York could put lower Manhattan under 25 feet of water, flooding Battery Park and maybe Wall Street. (I lived in the Village in the 70s, and that is at around 100 feet, I believe.) Part of the problem is the “right angle” of the harbor between New York City and New Jersey. Southern Long Island was devastated and lower Manhattan was flooded with a 1992 “noreaster” that wasn’t a hurricane.

If one looks at a 1950 World Book Encyclopedia state map for any coastal state, one can see the areas that are under 100 feet elevation (dark green; 100-500 feet is light green, and 500-1000 is yellow). Such a map shows that an appreciable part of the Tidewater Virginia and Maryland areas could be at great risk.

The movie did not discuss the possibility of sudden “cooling” of Europe if the melting glacier disrupted the Gulf Stream current.

The movie also notes that the orbit of the Earth has a 100,000 year natural cycle where it varies from circular to more elliptical (students in Algebra II get asked to compute eccentricities of ellipses on those dreaded algebra tests; this program might make the concept relevant to them).

Earlier films: History channel.

Anderson Cooper’s Planet in Peril.

Also, see a discussion of the DC Environmental Film Festival, here.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

National Geographic: Aftermath: Population Zero

Tonight, Sunday March 9, 2008, the National Geographic Channel aired its film “Aftermath: Population Zero,” with the main snazzy video link here.

This, one would expect, is similar to the History Channel’s “Life After People” on January 21 of this year. But this film seems even a bit darker and more striking.

It is a little more specific as to “how it happens.” At 7:31 AM EDT on Friday June 13, 2008, everyone just dematerializes. Say, if you like, everyone is raptured, but that even includes non-believers. This is definitely a non-tribulationism event. The previews called this "the world you will never see."

It doesn’t take too long for power utilities to shut themselves off. One striking detail in this film is that most nuclear power plants will experience meltdowns with explosions of their containment vessels and releases of radiation much larger than Chernobyl or even Hiroshima. Even so, in many decades, nature will absorb this catastrophe and bury the radiation. Smaller animals, thousand s of miles away, are vulnerable to radiation poisoning since beta particles penetrate about a half inch. The film does not explain how larger predators would find food supplies with small mammals gone, and larger mammals would lose their body hair (and birds their feathers) to radiation, it would seem. The nuclear power plant discussion is probably the most sobering in the film, and provides warning as to what can go wrong even when people are here.

As in the History Channel film, nature takes over the cities, which will crumble away in less than two hundred years. Without maintenance, concrete and steel skyscrapers eventually rot and crumble, and eventually even the Eiffel Tower falls. I didn’t know that when the Tower was built, the French thought it would be taken down in twenty years.

Global warming reverses without people, as within a hundred years or so, all the extra carbon dioxide gets reabsorbed back into the oceans, and fish and sea animals flourish. In 20000, another ice age arrives.

Ironically, the one remnant of man survives off the earth, on the Moon, which has no atmosphere. Perhaps the rovers on Mars will remain for hundreds of thousands of years, since Mars has a very thin and non-reactive atmosphere.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

History Channel: Cosmic Collisions: how asteroids can get flung into the inner solar system

On March 4, 2008, the History Channel aired the “Cosmic Collisions” episode in its “Universe” series. This program surveyed the possibilities of collisions among all kinds of astronomical entities, including galaxies themselves. The Milky Way is actually absorbing two small galaxies now, and will one day collide with the Andromeda Galaxy, in billions of years.

But the part of the program of practical significance was that dealing with “families” of objects in the Kuiper Belt (beyond Neptune) and Asteroid Belt, mostly between Mars and Jupiter. The Kuiper Belt tends to consist of icy objects and comets; the asteroids are metallic and rocky. There is a tendency for them to collide among their groups, and also to get into some kind of synchronicity with Jupiter that flings many of them into the inner solar system, setting up possible strikes on Earth.

The two biggest strikes on Earth happened 250 million years ago, when the Earth’s land mass was one continent Pangea, and 65 million years ago. The strike 250 million years ago seems to have been an asteroid of several miles width and the evidence remains in the plateau desert terrain of northwestern Australia. That strike provoked “the great dying” with a “nuclear winter” and killed off 90% of species, allowing the dinosaurs to evolve. The second strike was off Yucatan and gave mammals a chance to evolve. It may have been more like a chondrite, and it was not as large as the earlier one.

A major asteroid hit, if undetected and unintercepted, could wipe out civilization as we know it, although in some areas men would survive and start a tribal existence again. Sounds like a good topic for a movie. Screenplays anyone?