A high-tech version of the i am joe’s spleen articles from Reader’s Digest that were immortalized in Fight Club, Inside the Living Body shows just how far medical imaging has come since Katie Couric’s famous on-air colonoscopy in 2000. Using endoscopic cameras and software that creates 3-D composites from anatomical scans, this ambitious National Geographic special is full of jaw-dropping (and sometimes literally stomach-turning) vistas of the human interior. The central conceit is sometimes cheesy—the filmmakers attempt to document every stage of an “average” woman’s 80-year life in 96 minutes—but the subdermal footage lives up to the hyperbolic build-up.
Even before Living Body gets down to plumbing our depths, the documentary establishes itself as the stoner TV event of the year with a simulation of the world as experienced through the senses of a newborn (infancy, we’re told, is when our hearing is at its most acute, while our eyesight is at its worst). A baby’s first trip outside turns into high drama in the film’s most creative sequence, which relies entirely on traditional techniques. But it doesn’t take long for the filmmakers to dip into their high-tech toy box with the first of many money shots of the digestive system in action, most of which prove that the scene in The Empire Strikes Back where the Millennium Falcon is swallowed by a space slug was more realistic than anyone could have realized.
The use of digital animation to paste X-ray overlays onto the human exterior is by turns creepy and unintentionally hilarious (on the two occasions when the film briefly ditches its everywoman subject to explore the male body, we’re shown a guy with equipment John Holmes would be proud of), but in a sequence illustrating how our ears serve as balancing mechanisms, it becomes impossible to tell where CGI ends and actual photography begins. As our subject enters her twenties, the film naturally takes time to show the corrosive effects of cigarettes and alcohol on the human body. The images of gummed-up lungs are appropriately chilling, but the segment devoted to booze is a little too puritanical (though the illustration of the exact nature of a hangover is unquestionably edifying). While such scenes encourage healthy living, there are others that might backfire: The footage of fat deposits enveloping muscles is disgusting enough that it could well drive millions of viewers to anorexia.
The filmmakers say they decided to document a female life in order to throw childbirth into the mix, but since Living Body chronicles the life of a hypothetical woman, the decision to give her a caesarean section seems like showboating (especially since, apart from the aforementioned hangover, she experiences no other health problems before kicking the bucket at 80). Perhaps the producers felt the birthing process was old hat—the doc is an informal sequel to their 2005 special In the Womb. Far more arresting is the study of menstruation, which includes some spectacular footage of eggs passing from the fallopian tubes into the uterus (during which the narrator plugs the Long Island fertility clinic at which it was shot).
On occasion, Living Body somewhat lazily falls back on stock nature-film devices (“For the first time…,” the ultimate Discovery Channel narration cliché, is used more than once to introduce particularly spectacular images), but the occasions on which the producers’ British sense of humor shows through help balance things out (a discourse on the male accumulation of belly fat is illustrated by a gargantuan bald lout chugging a pint). The inevitable death sequence, set to music that simultaneously evokes Pink Floyd and Radiohead, strongly recalls the episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation in which Jean-Luc Picard lives an entire life in less than an hour. As the saying goes, if you’re going to steal, steal from the best.