These days, movies employ a whole variety of cinematic tricks and special effects to lure audiences into the most immersive experience possible. We're used to everything from the hyperrealistic real3D to the moving chairs of DBox, and I don't think I'll ever get tired of the next big thing in innovation if it means my viewing experience becomes that much more real.
However, there's an old trick that filmmakers and special effects artists have been using for years that instantly makes audiences relate to protagonists and sympathetic characters. It's something that links the benevolent aliens of Star Trek, the friendly robots of Star Wars, and even some otherworldly magical creatures from Harry Potter.
This trait is so simple, you may just be surprised you've never noticed it before.
Here's the one thing they all have in common
It's called the sternocleidomastoid muscle, and it's an exclusive feature of mammalian lifeforms. It allows the head to turn to the right and left, and when both sides work together, it flexes the neck outward and extends the head. In that way, it's not entirely dissimilar to this charming fellow.
Okay, maybe that's a stretch. But the sternocleidomastoid does play a major role in giving extraterrestrial or robotic personalities an extra little bit of human-ness. Because mammals are the only class of animals with this nifty trait, the theory goes that we immediately recognize a sense of familiarity in creatures who have it—even if they're from another planet.
Stuart Sumida, a biologist at Cal State San Bernadino who also works as a consultant on anatomy for FX studios, revealed this trick when discussing Na'vi biology in Avatar. Apparently, adding this little muscle to a character's neck is especially popular when making an alien look attractive, so you can feel a bit better about your confusing feelings for Neytiri.
Sumida also points out that it's not just aliens who get the sternocleidomastoid or some kind of variation. When creature and robot designers want to make you feel an immediate connection to an otherwise foreign character, they often just look to the neck.
"Even C3PO has it, in the form of little pistons on his neck. Watch Star Trek : The good guys always have them, and the bad guys don't. It's a classic alien designer trick."
Who knew that a simple muscle could elicit such a strong feeling of empathy?
Of course, there are examples of friendly non-humans (even in Star Trek) without sternocleidomastoids, but that doesn't disprove the theory. According to this specialist, the muscle just makes the character easier to relate to on a physical level, but that doesn't mean some clever storytelling and sympathetic characterizations can't make these unfamiliar folks lovable.
For example, E.T. doesn't have the feature, but who could resist seeing humanity in something as cute as this?
So, next time you're watching a sci-fi or fantasy movie and come across a particularly relatable but still-exotic life form, look for the sternocleidomastoid. You won't have to stick your neck out too far to find them.