I Am Human


The brain remains the most mysterious organ.

(2019) Documentary (1091) Bryan Johnson, Bill Kochevar, Anne Shabason, Stephen Shrubshall, Stan Shabason, Denise Vanier, Ramez Naam, David Eagleman, Bobby Kasthuri, Richard F. Kirsch, Nita A. Farahany, A. Bolu Ajiboye, Miguel Nicolelis, Dustin J. Tyler), Andres M. Lozano, Ana Leffel, Kate Allen, Claude Clément, John Donoghue, Sara Goering, Tracy Laabs. Directed by Taryn Southern and Elena Gaby

 

Despite all the issues that beset us from a fractious Presidential election to climate change to the coronavirus, we still manage to live in amazing times. We even may one day soon begin unlocking the secrets of the human brain.

The brain is the most mysterious of organs, one we even now know very little about. We still have a hard time figuring out why things go wrong for some people neurologically, while we’re at a loss of how to treat let alone cure them. It is frustrating for medical professionals who can offer patients little hope of any sort of meaningful life change when their lives have been altered fundamentally.

Bill Kochevar was involved in an accident that left him paralyzed from the chest down. Unable to move his legs or arms, he lived in a 24-hour care facility, using voice commands to lift the curtains or raise the top half of his bed so he could sit up. He agrees to undergo a radical surgical procedure to implant electrodes that would stimulate damaged areas of his brain and reconnect neurons that are no longer working, allowing him to move. Bill’s hope was to one day be able to feed himself.

Anne Shabason is a Parkinson’s disease patient whose life has ground to a halt. Barely able to function due to near-constant tremors, she has had to give up her artwork, and being an active grandmother and mother. She doesn’t even like seeing friends because her smile muscles don’t work right, giving her a stony expression when she attempts to smile. She worries about being a burden to her mega-supportive husband Stan. She is also having electrodes in her brain, undergoing a treatment known as deep brain stimulation, which has only been performed on a handful of patients to mixed results. She hopes she can get the tremors under control so that she can live a relatively normal life.

Stephen Shrubshall had a genetic disorder that didn’t manifest itself until he was an adult, turning his entire world white. He rarely leaves his apartment and his sister Denise Vanier is essentially his sole contact with the outside world. He hasn’t seen his sister’s face in years; he longs to regain the independence he lost when he went blind. Doctors are trying a radically new procedure in which an electrode is placed just in the lens of his eye, and another behind the eye itself. Wearing special glasses with a video camera implanted, technicians tweak the electric flow in order to restore his vision somewhat.

The filmmakers do a good job of making sure that we don’t see these procedures as a panacea, but rather as promising developments. The improvement in the lives of the subjects is considerable but not enough for them to meet their goals. To the credit of the filmmakers, they present their subjects in an even-handed way; in their own way they are courageous, but they are also understandably cautious and skeptical.

At times resembling a Nova episode, sometimes the material gets a little dry. Also, the final third of the film examines potential applications for this kind of technology – the ability to create “superpowers” in ordinary humans, the ability to connect with the Internet without using a device, or to change one’s mood with the aid of a thought-activated interface. If it sounds like science fiction, know that people like Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk and Kernel CEO Bryan Johnson are already investing in making this science fiction into science fact.

Some ethicists warn that this kind of technology comes awfully close to the line of playing God, and we know that man’s hubris generally speaking is much more developed than man’s common sense. I don’t know that this is necessarily a brave new world, but like all technological advancements, we will find a way to live with them whether we want to or not.

REASONS TO SEE: Has the feel of a well-done Nova episode.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit on the dry side.
FAMILY VALUES: Some of the surgical procedure footage may be a bit much for the squeamish, although there isn’t much blood shown.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kochevar passed away shortly after filming was completed as a result of complications from the injuries of his original accident.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/11/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Icarus
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Swallow

Zoom: Academy for Superheroes


Zoom

Tim Allen is pleased to find out that he isn't responsible for the problems of Zoom.

(Columbia) Tim Allen, Courtney Cox, Rip Torn, Chevy Chase, Spencer Breslin, Ryan Newman, Kate Mara, Michael Cassidy, Kevin Zegers, Thomas F. Wilson. Directed by Pete Hewitt.

I’m all for superheroes. I love ’em. Really, I do. Give me a movie about a superhero and I’ll almost certainly be there, unless it’s Catwoman. I will admit to missing that one, and after I saw it on DVD, I realized I’d made the right decision. I’ve even enjoyed the faux heroes of Sky High and The Specials.

Being a long time fan of the genre, I will admit that much of what goes on is intended for younger audiences. After all, comic books are part of the American landscape for most kids. That’s why it didn’t faze me – at least at first – that a superhero movie was coming out aimed directly for small fries. I enjoy Tim Allen, at least most of the time, so I had hopes that this would be along the lines of a GalaxyQuest for the spandex set.

Hope may spring eternal for a blogger, but not so much for Jack Shepard (Allen). He runs an auto shop that prides itself on taking the time to fix cars right. What his customers don’t know is that Jack was once better known by another name – Zoom, team leader of the Zenith Project, kids with special powers who had been trained by the government to be a genuine superhero team. They had been the pride of America, protecting us from threats foreign and domestic until an ambitious general named Larraby (Torn) irradiated them with gamma radiation (doesn’t Bruce Banner have a patent on that?) causing one of them, Concussion, to go berserk and attack his own team, killing all of them except for Zoom who is forced to run faster than he ever has before, creating a vortex into which his brother is sucked, never to be seen again. This leaves Jack without any speed powers (except in one finger) and retired, more or less happily, for 30 years.

However, there is a threat on the horizon. Nebbish scientist Dr. Grant (Chase) has determined that a transdimensional portal is about to manifest in our world, and when it does Concussion will be loosed on our world again. He and General Larraby decide to revive Project Zenith and use the powerless Zoom as a trainer for a new generation of heroes. Comely (but clumsy) psychologist Marsha Holloway (Cox) is sent to fetch Jack, promising him that the kids won’t be irradiated, but “natural ” methods will be used. A half million dollar paycheck doesn’t hurt either.

The kids – superstrong six-year-old Cindy Collins a.k.a. Princess (Newman), chunky twelve-year-old Tucker Williams a.k.a. Megaboy (Breslin) who is able to inflate various parts of his body, sixteen-year-old telekinetic Summer Jones a.k.a. Wonder (Mara) and seventeen-year-old Dylan West a.k.a. Houdini (Cassidy) who is able to turn invisible at will – are skeptical. The world has changed in thirty years and the idea of becoming a superhero, while cool, is a little passé. Zoom, for his part, is just going through the motions. He hasn’t been told what the kids are being trained for, so he thinks it’s just a government lark. He’s there strictly for the paycheck.

As time grows short, the pressure begins to mount on Jack to train the kids – or else. Gradually, he begins to grudgingly learn to like the kids and begins to actually prepare them for the life of a superhero, until he finds out the truth. Can he prepare the kids in time so that they don’t meet the same end as his previous team?

The movie is loosely – verrrrrry loosely – based on an illustrated book by Jason Lethcoe. However, the similarities between his book and Sky High were too noticeable and so the decision was made to alter the storyline. What results is a pastiche from various movies, some good, some bad but none working cohesively. Allen and Cox do their work gamely and manage not to disgrace themselves. Neither does the young cast, although Newman’s Princess was so annoying that by the end of the movie I was hoping that a meteor might hit her, or at least some calamity would befall her that might cause her to miss the rest of the movie.

Because the movie is aimed squarely at a younger set, the action is dumbed down. The fact that Jack’s team (which included his fiancee, by the way) had been killed by his own brother could have been explored in greater depth, but it was glossed over, the filmmakers not wanting anything unpleasant for the tykes in the audience to dwell on. Mostly everyone acts like buffoons, and the comedy, such as it is, is of the pee-pee doo-doo ca-ca variety, as one of my writing teachers used to identify the style.

This very much has the look and feel of a Saturday morning made-for-TV movie, something that might have aired on the Disney channel or Nickelodeon (and it probably will anyway). Young kids who are not so discerning (and I’m talking of the four to six-year-old variety) will probably get a kick out of it, while their parents will spend their time eagerly anticipating the end credits. That’s a shame, because there are some nice elements here, enough so that they could have made a decent movie of it in better hands. Director Pete Hewitt (whose previous movie was Garfield which should tell you all you need to know) needs to go back to the drawing board and rethink this one. Incidentally, the movie was released theatrically as Zoom but was retitled for the DVD release on perhaps the hopelessly insane chance that the audience might not recognize it.

WHY RENT THIS: Allen and Cox are at least pleasant. Some of the special effects are tolerable.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Dumbed down for kids, the movie misses some real opportunities to explore complex themes. Newman is way annoying.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the rumor is a little rude and of the toilet variety but otherwise okay for most kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: A photo of the old Zenith team not only includes Allen and Zegers but also Alexis Bledel, Wilmer Valderrama and Devon Aoki.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are a collection of four public service-type shorts aimed squarely at teaching youngsters good values.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $12.5M on an unreported production budget (but one I would guess would be north of $50M); the movie was a major flop.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: The Town