Oh, no. You guys. There is something under the ice. Alive. Malevolent. Bizarre. Enormously terrifying. It will soon hurl our entire cluster of space-traveling heroes into fits of insanity and violence and much panicked screaming. Oh, no.
How will our astronaut movie heroes possibly survive? And just what is the monster, exactly? What did this gritty new film's creators come up with? Does it matter? Will you pay 15 bucks to find out and then be vaguely disappointed because you've seen 15,000 things just like it 15,000 times before? Oh heavens, yes, you almost certainly will.
By the way? The landscape in this upcoming movie -- it does not matter what the title is, or who stars in it, or that it's coming out soon, even though it is -- is gorgeous. The cinematography is stunning. Many millions were obviously spent on the special effects because the realism is sort of effortlessly mind-blowing in that look-what-they-can-do-with-computer-graphics-these-days sort of way.
The plot is, as always, childishly simple: The usual humanistic buildup (news conferences, crew bonding, photos of the kids back home) is soon followed by Our Intrepid Crew landing majestically on Europa, the frozen fourth moon of Jupiter. The score swells. There is amazement, much cheering back home. It's breathtaking out there, really.
Why is the crew there? The crew is there, naturally, to search for signs of life on this tiny speck of space dust, this cold and barren rock next to Jupiter. Because obviously.
Of course, being a sci-fi thriller, the life they seek is not easily visible. Alien life is never, say, living just over there in a little shack by that outcropping, waving hello. It is never friendly, intelligent, hanging around in plain sight, eager for some guests. "Hi! Thanks for coming so far! Did you bring wine?"
Is it not a thing? How aliens are never sociable and welcoming, excited for our arrival? Or even just ambivalent or too busy to care? Not ever, not even once in a thousand million sci-fi thrillers unless they're mindless slapstick comedies or maybe ET -- which was made, of course, for children, and has about a sophisticated an idea of intelligent alien life as Herbie the Love Bug has about transportation. Do you ever wonder why that is? I often wonder why that is.
But never mind that now, because oh my God, there is life hiding on Jupiter's ominous frozen moon, because the movie would not exist otherwise. Do you know where the life is? That's right: It's beneath all that ice. Time to drill.
Do you know what happens next? Are you more than six years old? Have you lived with American popular culture for more than a single week? Then you know exactly what happens next.
We live in an age of miracles and wonder. It is an age when we can conceive of the most gorgeous and radiant urban landscapes, art, gadgets, architecture, ecstatic designs, possible futures.
It is a time when, no matter how horribly we treat her, Mother Nature still insists on bombarding us with spectacular, otherworldly organisms, patterns, hyper-sophisticated evolutions. Have you see Blue Planet? The Secret Life of Plants? Hubble telescope composites? The goddamn night sky? Awe abounds, more than we can ever fully comprehend.
And yet? The only significant popular entertainment I can recall where the deep-sea/outer space/cave-dwelling creatures were not evil, soul-ripping face-melting colon-exploding fanged-toothed acid-dripping madness-inducing hateblobs whose sole purpose was to suck the flesh from humanity's bones in the most gruesome way possible, the only film I can recall where the alien life was actually depicted as sort of wonderful, positive, radiant, even ethereal and delightfully mysterious, was an old, pre-Avatar James Cameron movie from 1989 called The Abyss. Close Encounters also came close. And maybe 1997's Contact, a little. And that's about it.
Do you know The Abyss? It's a surprisingly well-crafted hunk of "gritty" sci-fi, with a rather surprising, contrarian twist: the monsters from the deep turn out to be no monsters at all, but rather these gentle, flowing, intricate, bioluminescent things made of pulsing light and profound intelligence (credit Cameron's passion for oceanographic science for the creature's plausibility). These lovely beings then proceed to save Ed Harris' grumpy character from certain death. And then, well, they just sort of swim away.
It's true. The Abyss has perhaps the worst ending of any sci-fi pic I can recall (Harris' character is saved by the creatures via what looks like a massive piece of Styrofoam. And then the movie just... ends). It's as though even Cameron himself had no idea what to do with the staggering possibility he revealed. "You guys! Magical, hyper-intelligent beings of light are flourishing deep in the ocean, right now! And, um..." Roll credits.
To be fair, it's not exactly easy. The normal clichés were not present. We did not kill the monsters. We did not vanquish the demons, or prove ourselves the most awesome species in the galaxy. The acid-drooling alien did not wrap a slimy tentacle to the spaceship as we lifted off, or impregnate one of the crew with its parasitic egg. We did not "cancel the apocalypse." Right? BO-ring.
Here is the gist and the point, finally: When it comes to strangers and the alien unknown, we are masters of the vile and grotesque, but can't do unspeakable magic or beauty. We can effortlessly create the ugliest and most bizarre, the most repulsive horrors imaginable, invent movies with images so disgusting you can't even describe them in print. This is easy. Almost anyone can do it, and almost everyone does.
But if I say, "Please come up with a creature or a scenario of nearly indescribable beauty, an alien oganism of such staggering luminescence, or power, or unusual character you almost can't look at it without weeping, or catching your breath, or suddenly expanding your soul," you will almost certainly fail.
Or if I say, "Imagine for me a monster that is no monster at all. Let us make a grand and mind-blowing film that features such beasts of wonder, people walk out weak in the knees and speechless. And no, it can't be anime. It can't be Miyazake. It can't be goddamn Disney or cutesy, slapstick Pixar. It can't be bogus religious fantasy. It can't be New Age corny."
Can you do it? Can anyone? Probably not...
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Mark Morford is the author of The Daring Spectacle: Adventures in Deviant Journalism, a mega-collection of his finest columns for the San Francisco Chronicle and SFGate, and the creator of the new Mark Morford's Apothecary iOS app. He's also a well-known ERYT yoga instructor in San Francisco. Join him on Facebook, or email him. Not to mention...