Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Whiteboards as Science Fiction—Review of Arrival

This is not a negative blog. But when I saw people who should know better praising the movie Arrival, I thought my head would explode.

For this initial part, I’ll say that if you like the star of the movie, Amy Adams, she gives a magnificent performance. If you want to see two hours of her on the big screen going through an array of emotions, you will probably like it.

You just have to ignore the stuff coming out of her mouth or the mouths of the other actors. I am now going to be very skeptical of science fiction movies with A-list actors that are aimed at mainstream audiences. I can sum up this movie with one word: illogical.


The big clue that Arrival is going to be a thunderously stupid movie comes at the start. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is an expert linguist. Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) has to decide between recruiting her or some fellow in California. Louise says to ask the other linguist what the Sanskrit word for “war” means. The colonel goes there and comes back, picking Louise. You see, she knew the true root meaning of the word.

Huh? How could the colonel, who doesn’t know any more about linguistics and Sanskrit than Louise does about how to pilot a helicopter or fire an M16 rifle, make that determination? This is especially a non-starter because he didn’t know what Louise would say about the root meaning before he returned.

Just allow me to crush this gnat with a sledge hammer: Military Guy does not know which intellectual to pick. Redhead Intellectual says ask California Intellectual a question. Military Guy does and gets an answer he can’t possibly evaluate. Military Guy picks Redhead Intellectual, because her answer that he hasn’t heard yet and can’t possibly evaluate must be better.

I spent some time on this early scene because the whole movie is like this. It is one illogical scene after another.

They show the transition from natural gravity to artificial gravity inside the spaceship. Fine. But the military people, who have done this before, leave an inexperienced civilian to go last. They say something like “Jump” to that person. And this makes sense how?

They actually take a canary with them, to see if the air goes bad while they’re trying to talk to the aliens. Really? With all the scientific equipment they had with them, which were specifically giving off readings on the air? They bring up the canary-in-a-coal-mine concept to look smart?

Louise holds a whiteboard to the aliens with the word “Human” on it. Next time, she holds up one that says “Louise.” Is she just trying to confuse them? She doesn’t do anything to distinguish between the two words.

Going away from simple logic to the actual discipline of linguistics, real linguists would be tearing their hair out watching this. After some time of just staring at the aliens stupidly, Louise gets the radical idea of bringing a whiteboard to one of the sessions. After wasting time with her guess-what-Human-and-Louise-mean routine, they show scenes of progress, like writing “Ian walks” while Ian walks in front of the aliens. Wow. The main problem is, a linguist would try to do all this in the first hour, instead of looking puzzled for days on end as the world panics.

Usually in this sort of alien encounter movie, with the aliens possibly being a threat, we either have a scientist who knows better than all the military people, or a military person who knows better than all the scientists. At least, that’s how the SyFy Channel does it. We usually end up with a lot of military people getting killed, or a lot of scientists getting killed.

Arrival has the novelty of what might be thought of as a liberal arts type being the person who knows better than everyone. I thought this would be intriguing, until it became infuriating.

Numbers are dumped on in this movie. Ian, the scientist, talks about using prime numbers, but is ignored in that conversation. He later talks about transmitting the Fibonacci sequence to the aliens, but Colonel Weber angrily tells him they don’t have time to wait for the aliens to go through calculations, and that’s the end of that idea. Who said anything about calculations? It would be a matter of recognizing universal sequences. Granted, it was the military guy who said this, but it is a slap in the face of anyone who knows that numbers express universal values that would be a natural way to attempt communication with an alien race.

What is even worse is the movie indulges in the worst stereotypes of the military and talk radio. They show a soldier having a heartfelt phone call with his wife or girlfriend, and we see the deep bond between them. Then he watches some talk radio (yes, he watches it), and for no particular reason, he decides to plant a bomb on the spaceship. He and a couple other soldiers even fire their rifles at their fellow soldiers, willing to kill them to stop them from getting to the bomb.

So these ignorant soldiers are easily radicalized by talk radio. Of course the liberal arts type is so superior and noble compared to these rabble.

Back to linguistics. The bat crazy moment comes when Louise asks the aliens what their purpose is, and they reply, “Offer weapon.” Wow, you wouldn’t expect the American and Russian and Chinese governments to react, would you? The aliens actually meant, “Offer gift.” I thought the aliens were supposed to be smart. More to the point, if they can understand abstract language like “What is your purpose here?” or “What do you want?” do you think they would make that horrendous a mistake with a simple noun?

When asked why they came, they reply that either three hundred or three thousand years in the future (I can’t remember which), they will need mankind. They elaborate that learning their language changes the brain so that past, present, and future can all be perceived.

Wait a minute (in the present). They do not just have a particular glimpse of a future event. They constantly perceive past, present, and future. Then why didn’t they know a bomb would go off? Why didn’t they already know English? In fact, why didn’t they arrive with whiteboards reading, “Hi Louise” and “Hi Ian”?

If you liked the relationship between Louise and her daughter, I have no criticism of that. And I like that they used “heptapod” to describe the seven-legged aliens. Some might wonder why it wasn’t “septapod.” Septa is the Latin prefix for seven, while hepta is the Greek.

But to sum up, Arrival was completely illogical from start to finish. It was anti-number, anti-military, and anti-talk radio. It presented an insultingly stupid version of linguistics as cutting edge. And so reviewers rushed to see who could be the first to post the word “cerebral” to describe it.


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