Sunday!

Having seen Arrival, I can enthusiastically recommend it to everyone out there. There you go. Close this tab and get your ticket now. Know that, if you keep reading, you’re going to see spoilers and those spoilers might have an impact upon how much you enjoy the movie in the moment.

Okay, are you still here? I assume that you’ve either seen it or won’t mind being spoiled somewhat.

The movie is one of those that has a somewhat big reveal in the last quarter or so. Now, lest I summon memories of The Sixth Sense, I’ll say that the big reveal is more of a moment of clarity rather than a twist. The movie spends a great many moments telling you a number of things without giving you the context for the things it has told you… and then, at the moment of clarity, you’re given the context. This is a rather lovely moment and more takes the form “ooooh… I’ve heard that word a hundred times but I never understood what it meant until now” rather than “ALL OF YOUR ASSUMPTIONS UP TO THIS POINT WERE WRONG”.

It’s a science fiction movie with an emphasis on the “science” and it’s the sciency part of science rather than the engineering part of it. Do you like linguistics and language theory? Well, you’re going to love this particular movie.

Now we get into the weeds. I am 100% down with the whole “different languages cause you to wire your brain differently” thing. I like that. It absolutely makes sense to me that knowing one language would cause you to think in one way and knowing another language would cause you to think differently, even if you spent your life dealing with the same phenomena. Language is like a tool that will help you deal and interact with these phenomena. Some languages are like a saw or a wedge, some languages are like a leatherman. I’m 100% down with that.

Where the movie gets me, and I’m putting the details of this complaint behind spoiler tags, was where we got into one of the time travel problems out there.

Specifically, the “Information Loop”.
The scene where we see her getting/transmitting information across eras? Where the Chinese General gives her his phone number in the future so she can call him in the past, where she relays his message to her that she gave to him?
That bugged the heck out of me.
I was running with the movie with the language thing. I was running with the movie with the aliens thing. I was running with the movie with the language can cause you to see things differently to the point where even time is seen differently… but I couldn’t past the whole “bootstraps” thing.

That problem was a very, very small problem, though.
A strong story, with a very strong female protagonist, interesting discussions of language theory, fun special effects that don’t particularly feel “special”, and plenty of fodder to argue about on the car drive home? That right there is money well spent.

If you haven’t seen it, you ought to.

So… what are you reading and/or watching?


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Jaybird is Birdmojo on Xbox Live and Jaybirdmojo on Playstation's network. He's been playing consoles since the Atari 2600 and it was Zork that taught him how to touch-type. If you've got a song for Wednesday, a commercial for Saturday, a recommendation for Tuesday, an essay for Monday, or, heck, just a handful a questions, fire off an email to AskJaybird-at-gmail.com

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43 thoughts on “Sunday!

  1. Arrival is awesome. As is the story it’s (pretty faithfully) based on. Ted Chiang is a great, great, SF author, but he doesn’t write novels and puts out about one short story a year, so almost everything he’s ever written is in this one collection: Stories of Your Life. Buy it. You won’t be sorry.

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    • It’s been my favorite movie this year The same director’s (Dennis Villenueve) Sicario was my favorite movie from last year. And he is the guy that will be directing Blade Runner II next year. So in the moments that I can put Mr. Trump out of my mind, I’m looking forward to the future.

      I had no problem with the “extended vision across time” trope–science fiction is primarily a vehicle for social metaphor–but was bothered by the alien’s stupid alphabet. Every sentence and every word looks like the stain left by a glass of iced tea on a wood table.

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  2. If you haven’t already, you should read the short story. I really liked the movie, but the short story delves much more in the linguistic and science issues and ties them together in a very neat way.

    And the short story avoids the issue that bothered you (and me). Short story spoiler: The international crisis and its “All you zombies” resolution doesn’t appear in the book. Instead, it is discovered that the heptapods’ written language enables/relies on experiencing all of time simultaneously. But the the process is such that anyone getting that simultaneous view has no desire to change the perceived future but rather naturally wishes to follow it. (If I follow the argument right, your time line basically follows all possible paths till it finds a stable solution where you won’t want to change)

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    • I think that there are at least two subplots in the film that sell this exact idea. One of them has been front and center the whole time.

      The first is her daughter. She knows that the child will be born with some sort of genetic unstoppable disease, such as cystic fibrosis. She knows this will drive away her husband and lover. She goes ahead and does it anyway, with no regrets.

      The second is Costello’s death. They know, presumably, that they will be killed by the bomb. (And Abbot knows, too, or did I get them switched?) But they choose to be there and transmit the vital information to Louise and Ian, because they know what the stakes are and what the consequences are.

      I think that this can work with General Shang. He does what he does because he prefers this outcome. He didn’t know he would, but once he does know, he likes it, and so he cooperates with his own, very limited understanding. (I think that Louise tells him what happens in the future as part of the phone call.)

      The point is not so much the paradox as it is that this is a version of reality that is stable. That knowing the future doesn’t always make you want to change it. Sometimes you do the thing you have always known you will do. And other times you suddenly realize that what you were doing isn’t what you wanted.

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  3. I haven’t seen the movie, nor read the spoilers (this looks interesting enough to get me to a theater) but your description makes me think of The Sparrow. Which, if you haven’t read, pick it up. Fantastic SF novel, one of the best of the “90’s.

    The movers come tomorrow, the wife has left with the plants (5×8 u-haul full) and pets (four) the house is a warren of boxes and furniture. And I will be sanse internet/my books for a few days, so I wandered down to the local paperback exchange and picked up The Gripping Hand (never read, but loved Mote) and Chance (good solid but easy Conrad) to bid the time.

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  4. I made good progress on my 2016 movie list over the last week of vacation. I caught X-Men: Apocalypse (A-), Independence Day: Resurgence (B) and Star Trek Beyond (C-) all on Amazon streaming. We also saw Doctor Strange (A) and Arrival (A-) in the theater.

    Regarding ArrivalI’m still not clear how learning the language enabled her to see the future, but overall, it was pretty good and beautifully filmed. I expect an Oscar nomination for Adams and maybe a Best Supporting for Renner.

    We tried to catch Fantastic Beasts last night but it was sold out. Hopefully we’ll see it sometime this week. Really starting to get excited for Rogue One.

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    • It’s that language can make you see things differently.

      If you want to get vaguely political, you can read 1984 or Anthem and it might be easier to see from that angle.

      Looking for another, less political angle, I’m struggling for a good example… colors, maybe? If a society has only one word for “blue” and “green” or for “red” but not for “orange”, does that change anything?

      Is there a language theorist in the house?

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    • Mike D,

      Regarding your blocked comment:

      They present what I took to be the main idea pretty quickly in the movie: that our concept of language is linear (one word after the other) and therefore communication only takes place, linearly, in time, whereas the heptapod written language, being circular, communicates thoughts atemporally and all at once.

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      • @stillwater

        I get that their language is non-linear, but in order to see the future…ummm, how do I enable that ability simply by getting you to think about time as non-linear? I just don’t see how changing one’s concept of time makes them clairvoyant.

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        • That’s why they broght up the Sapir Whorf hypothesis: A theory that language wires our brains in ways that determine how we, as speakers, perceive reality. So, it’s not so much that learning Heptapod language allows people to violate our laws of physics as much as that our language constrains us to viewing the world as determined by those laws.

          At least, that’s how it struck me.

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        • Well, I don’t know if this would help, but pre-langage man probably had no ability to conceive of technology, to create and spend money, or to form complex negotiations. I read recently (I think in one of the many thought-pieces on Arrival, that other than the primary colors, black and white, that man cannot perceive colors for which there is no name: maroon gets lumped to “red,” and chartreuse to green. For any thinking that requires “symbolic manipulation” requires language.

          (BTW: how is it that everybody here except me knows how to mask their text?)

          When I was in my 20s and 30s, I used to travel to a different country once or twice a year. Not only did I find that the different cultural foundations are reflected in language, but I became convinced over time that they were also mediated by language, as well..

          If you read about quantum theory, there is a dominant strain of thought that the idea of linear time is more or less a construct of consciousness. Whether that is driven more by biological processes, or by language, physicists don’t have that same perspective that time runs in one direction, and is monotonic. So just as the idea of radio communication was fantastical before Marconi, the idea of non-linear time perception seems impossible, until the moment it actually happens.

          That seems like an absolutely fantastic premise for a science fiction meditation on thought, communication, and perception.

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    • I think you’re asking whether the premise makes any sense scientifically.

      I don’t think it makes a lot of sense, but I can’t rule it out. Physicists are always going on about the “arrow of time” and how it doesn’t make a lot of sense, and how memory is kind of mysterious. I just read an article on the idea that what quantum mechanics is really about is memory. Physicists have also been known to ramble about “closed time-like loops”.

      So I wouldn’t call it completely disprovable.

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  5. I agree it was a terrific movie. Tight, intelligent story; great acting; fabulous pace and consistent intensity; beautiful cinematography; wonderful music; free of pandering and hackneyed Hollywood tropes.

    That said, I also had a problem with the time travel thing. From a dramatic perspective I thought they did a phenomenal job of presenting it to us by having both us and her learn about it at the same time. From a logical pov, tho, I’m not sure I understand it except that all her “memories” of her daughter also hadn’t happened, yet she had them. Memories of futures past. Which helped prime that well without resolving to causal-loop problem you mention. Also, I loved the idea that the coherence of interstellar space travel isn’t bound by our contemporary understanding of natural laws but rather arriving at a point where we can transcend them. I thought that was a clever twist.

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    • I loved the daughter stuff. That tied everything together for me.
      I thought that the various… things… we saw in the opening had already happened by the time the movie got rolling and that’s why she was in the house by herself but when it came out that they merely hadn’t happened yet? I was blown away. That was *SO* good.

      (Without delving into religion, was that the most pro-life movie to come out in a long, long time? Like since Innerspace or something?)

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      • The flashback/flashforward thing really got me. I fell for the trope completely, tho my wife sniffed out something weird by noticing that the mother was the exact same age in every flash. And I didn’t really think about it as a pro-life movie (being more focused on the space langauge stuff) but since you mentioned it, yeah, I agree.

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      • I thought that the filmmaking was very clever in the way it used “flashbacks”. It relied upon our assumptions about how flashbacks work, and what they mean, and then gave us a different interpretation. There was some care taken with her “dreams” to not say things that would break the illusion. For a while, I thought that the heptapods were empathically triggering memories that would be helpful to the task. Not exactly.

        I did not read it as pro-life. Louise clearly made a choice, a choice that having the child was worth it. She chose to get pregnant, in fact, knowing what would happen. If the power of the state is marshalled to command women to bear fetuses to term, there is no choice involved, and the beauty of that choice, and the respect for the woman making it, is destroyed.

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  6. I saw this. I liked it. On a cinematic note, I quite enjoyed an early long take where Louise walks out of a building into a parking lot. Two jets fly past in view, the camera tracks them, then we see a parking-lot collision. We swing back to Louise and as she goes to get in her car, two more jets emerge from behind a taller parking structure in the background, with a startling roar. I loved that shot, it told us so much.

    About 3/4ths of the way through I thought to myself, “Billy Pilgrim had become unstuck in time”. Did anyone else have this experience?

    I thought this had a lot in common with Gravity as well. Because of the mixing of science fiction story and personal tragedy, not to mention the female protagonist, and the emotional importance of the death of a child.

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