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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
January 21, 2016

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.

Orci & Kurtzman, Limitless, Spurious Correlations

Let's give J.J. Abrams his due: He directed excellent reboots of the Star Trek and Star Wars franchises.

But please, let's not slip into the fantasy world in which directors create everything and deserve sole credit for their films.

Far from it. J.J. Abrams's reboots had writers, and even if he worked with them closely, making suggestions or asking for rewrites, it is the writers who create the words the actors say, writers who devise the scenes that the director and cinematographer film.

On Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Abrams did enough to earn a writing credit of his own, but the first name there is Lawrence Kasdan, one of the finest screenwriters of all time, and the third is Michael Arndt, the writer of Little Miss Sunshine, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, and Toy Story 3. I bet they are at least as much of the reason The Force Awakens restored the Star Wars franchise to adequacy.

And as for the Star Trek reboot in 2009, the writers were Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman. (Gene Roddenberry was also credited, but he was dead at the time, so he probably didn't pull his weight.)

The directors and actors get all the publicity. Writers are used to that. The director usually has all the power, and the writers will never get used to that, because it's rare when that power is not used destructively.

Abrams's genius may simply be leaving the writers' work alone instead of fiddling with it till it's dead. In that respect, many directors are like cats. They catch their prey and then play with it till it dies, whereupon they drop it at the studio door and expect to be petted. Usually they are -- and when a film tanks, the writer is often the one who is blamed, while the director goes on to get paid even more to ruin the next script.

Abrams doesn't ruin scripts.

But it's Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman that I want to talk about. These guys understand storytelling, and while I can't begin to guess which of them does what, or how their collaboration works, I can tell you that it does work.

Here's the school they went to: The Island, The Legend of Zorro, Mission: Impossible III, Transformers, Star Trek, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Cowboys & Aliens, People Like Us, Star Trek Into Darkness, The Amazing Spider-Man 2.

Count how many of those were hits. Big hits. Huge audiences. And remember than they were all better than they needed to be. Better than anybody expected. Even the ones that "underperformed" were surprisingly good (Cowboys & Aliens wasn't a work of genius, but it was good entertainment).

Orci & Kurtzman may not be household words (yet), but you can be sure Hollywood knows who they are. They get called in to consult on a lot of things, and where they're allowed to, they make a huge difference, helping bad films become decent and good films become better.

And they do television.

Kurtzman & Orci developed the Hawaii Five-O reboot back in 2010, which is still on the air.

And they are executive producers (in television, usually a supervisory writing credit) on two series about geniuses: Scorpion and Limitless.

I've already written about Scorpion and its ongoing tale about a team of social misfit geniuses. Limitless is adapted from a 2011 movie of that name that starred Bradley Cooper, who appears in the tv series now and then, and also has an executive producer credit.

The premise of Limitless is that there's a little translucent pill that can convert an ordinary human brain into one with savant-like abilities -- for about a day. Whatever you can accomplish with that brain on that day will be extraordinary. Then you go back to being whatever kind of shlub you were before.

In a way, it's a sped-up version of the short story and novel Flowers for Algernon (made into the Cliff Robertson movie Charly), the tale of a retarded man who undergoes a procedure that makes him a genius for a little while, but then lets him drop back to how he was before; and then he dies. A very moving tale. But the hero of Limitless goes through the whole process in twenty-four hours. Except for the dying part. So far.

The problem with Flowers For Algernon and Charly is that nobody knew what to do with the character when he was a genius. I mean, how does a non-genius writer (Daniel Keyes, with Flowers) come up with what an actual genius says and does? And what does a non-genius actor do to make a genius character believable onscreen?

Let's just say that the writers on both Scorpion and Limitless do a pretty good job of showing how keen minds might be useful in solving problems.

Here's the biggest problem: "Thinking" can't be filmed. Only actions can be filmed. So Scorpion divides the team up like the crew of Firefly -- each one has an area of expertise, and then, when their skill is needed, we watch them think really hard for a second and then come up with a magical solution. It shouldn't work on screen, but it does.

Since the premise of Scorpion is that all geniuses are so different from regular people that they have a hard time engaging emotionally (think of Spock in Star Trek, sans pointy ears), what drives the ongoing series is the fact that they are human, with deep hungers and feelings, and they have to learn how to cope with them.

With Limitless, only the character Brian Finch (Jake McDornan) does genius stuff -- and only when he's high on genius juice, so to speak. The rest of the time he's just a guy. But he's an engaging guy and he has no trouble recognizing and dealing with his emotions because, hey, he's only a part-time genius.

In fact, this picture of genius is weirdly false, though I daresay most people share it. It's true that autistic savants are, first and foremost, autistic -- this limits their ability to see the world as other people see it, and to fit in with other people's social expectations.

But most geniuses are like most athletes -- they have a few extraordinary talents, for which they get a lot of praise and recognition, including, sometimes, money. However, they could handle ordinary human life if they felt like it.

Think of how a lot of famous people respond to having way too much praise for being really good at a small set of skills. We've watched big rock stars, famous athletes, and popular actors implode because they can't reconcile the hugeness of the approval they receive with the smallness of their actual achievements.

Either they believe the fame, and thus get a sense of entitlement that frees them to behave very, very badly -- trashing hotel rooms, saying vile things when running for public office, or heckling other people at award shows. Their win-loss record at marriage is often tragically lopsided.

Or they recognize that whatever abilities have brought them all this approval, they're not ennobling character attributes, they're just marketable skills. Such people can go ahead and lead ordinary lives because they're not all that impressed with themselves.

Limitless has the potential to deal with one of the huge aspects of mental genius that is usually ignored in our society: the fact that it ends.

No one is surprised when athletes age out of their profession. Nobody is going to excel at broken-field running at 45, or pitch that fastball at 50.

What we aren't so happy to admit is that brains also age, and mental abilities slacken and fade. Quickness slips; so does memory. Other people may not notice until you're in your sixties or seventies -- but you, the genius, start noticing in your thirties or forties.

Just as a young athlete responds with lightning quickness, so also the young genius has the answer almost before he's recognized the question. But by 40, you have to hear the question out, or you run the risk of giving a stock answer that doesn't really apply. You can seem quick -- but at the risk of embarrassment. Because your brain really doesn't grasp all that it used to.

We see this most clearly in the careers of poets and mathematicians. With rare, luminous exceptions, most of their best work is done before age 25. Then, coasting on past achievements, they plod along in some sinecure -- professor of mathematics having deep conversations with grad-student mathematicians who are doing the real work now; writer of "great poems" that nobody loves but everybody pretends to admire because of the great work of the youthful poet.

And then they die, and the work that is mentioned in their obituaries is always the work they did while young.

Most people with agile brains outlive their genius. It's just a fact of life. If they've lived sensibly and modestly, this isn't devastating. If, for instance, the "genius" was smart enough to marry and concentrate on raising happy, decent children, then in old age he or she won't be sad, endlessly mourning lost skills; they can be happy because life is still a pleasure to live.

This is the danger for people who "become" their careers, whether they're geniuses or not. If you think of yourself as spouse of this beloved person and parent to these wonderful children, then losing your job -- or simply never rising to the top of your profession -- isn't that big a deal. Sure, it can be disappointing, but it doesn't rob you of your most important identity.

But if "genius" is your only identity, then when it fades, you can be angry, bitter, terrified, and brutal to everyone around you when they don't treat you as you used to think you deserved.

In the story of Limitless, Brian Finch deals with pill-induced brilliance fading back into being a bright guy with potential. So far, we haven't seen him really suffer from this. That is, he might become agitated because he fades before solving the mystery he's been working on; but if he feels any anxiety about his identity apart from the drug, it shows up only tangentially.

In fact, the writers have Brian Finch act all the time as if he had all the confidence that comes from having your brain fire on all cylinders.

When he's off the drug, then he always seems to believe that he will get more of it. We don't see much of his frustration at trying to remember things he understood while drugged.

And that's the thing that is least believable. Think of the pitcher whose arm no longer quite obeys his commands. It's harder to find the strike zone. He remembers how it used to feel, knowing that the ball would go wherever he put it. And now it doesn't. It's scary and it's infuriating and you can't do anything about it.

Where is that frustration in Brian Finch? He seems always to remember everything he figured out while in genius mode -- but if he really is functioning at a higher mental level, he wouldn't be able to remember thoughts he's no longer capable of thinking. He'd remember that he thought something, but it's now out of his reach.

People who have "lost math" due to chronic fatigue syndrome know exactly what this feels like. So do stroke or brain-trauma victims who have lost functions that they used to take for granted.

This is an opportunity that I hope the writers of Limitless won't miss, because it's the pain at the root of the story. They think it's his relationship with his father and his childish ego needs, but they're wrong. Those are merely substitutes for the real pain that will make us love rather than merely like Brian Finch.

Meanwhile, though, in both these tv series about geniuses, the writers are doing a fine job of thinking up highly visual adventures for their geniuses to carry out. They have to go place and do things.

Never mind that in the real world, they would be too valuable to put at risk -- rather the way the original Star Trek insanely sent both the Captain and Executive Officer on planetside junkets where red-shirted crewmen were dying like ladybugs. We've got to have something to watch.

In Scorpion, there's way too much identity talk about genius: "I'm a genius. Did you know I'm a genius? This is what we geniuses do. We talk about being geniuses all the time and then wonder why we have no friends, but who needs friends when I'm a genius?"

The writers are gradually undercutting this and humanizing them. But I've known a few genuine first-rate geniuses in my life, and not one of them ever behaved like these guys.

The only people I met who did behave that way were the IQ-test aces who join Mensa. No, not all of them. But just think about it: If you're really a genius, why do you need to join a club? Well, presumably so that you can have a certificate declaring that yessirree bob, you are a genius. Then you can go to meetings and talk about how geniusly you do all your geniusy genius stuff.

If you're really all that, you should be off accomplishing something using those mental skills.

I'm sure the writers did research. Scorpion, after all, is based on the life of a real guy. But he's the kind of "genius" who needed to write a book about how geniusy he is. He had to get into the fulltime genius business.

Whereas the geniuses I've known are actually in love with one or many subject matters. They don't talk about being geniuses or show off all their geniosity. They are full of their subject -- that's what they love, that's what they talk about.

Something outside themselves.

They only turn inward when they can feel it fading. When the powers are slipping away. Then the fear and sadness and loneliness set in. And if they have no other life -- no life in which they have always functioned as a normal, decent human being -- then it can be a lonely road for them.

I have hopes that while the writers keep coming up with action-adventure and soap-opera plots for Scorpion and Limitless, they'll also gain some real understanding of the inevitable loss of mental athleticism.

Meanwhile, though, the shows are great fun. And you don't have to be a genius to enjoy them.

And hats off to Orci & Kurtzman. Good work, guys.

And thanks for simply loving the work you do instead of having to go around presenting yourselves on talk shows as "genius" writers. To me, your lack of interest in being called geniuses is the best evidence that yeah, on your best days, you probably are.


During this political season, we're being inundated with flatulent statistics that purport to "prove" that guns don't kill people, and cops kill black people out of racism instead of actual threat, and illegal immigrants are just, just, just wrecking everything.

Time after time, when the statistics aren't simply made up (see "Ophelia syndrome," "Super Bowl Sunday has the highest incidence of spouse abuse," "girls are discriminated against in school"), they still don't prove or even imply what they're being used to prove.

To turn this into a recreation, law student Tyler Vigen began running a website devoted to "data dredging." You take a known statistic -- for instance, how many times each year the comic-strip cat Garfield has actually eaten lasagna (his favorite food, but he gets it surprisingly rarely) -- and then search for other, unrelated data sets that show a similar curve.

In this case, potato usage for frozen French fries. The correlation, from 2000 to 2005, was 96.9%.

This is the kind of correlation that con men and idiots would use to "prove" that Garfield's lasagna consumption causes people to eat more frozen fries. The two facts merely happen to coincide; there is no causality involved. But the stats sound convincing because ... because we think that to refute them we would have to prove them wrong, and for all we know the stats are correct.

Correct, yes -- but idiotically misapplied. You don't have to look up the data to determine that.

However, there's an inverse case: When two stats that are supposed to be related don't correlate in any significant way -- like, for instance, human-initiated carbon-dioxide emissions and global temperatures -- then you can be pretty certain that there's no causality involved.

But Vigen never makes that point. It's a bonus, just from me (and anyone else with a minimal understanding of causality and correlation).

Hey, buy the book Spurious Correlations and read it just for the fun of imagining some poor bonehead trying to prove some idea using these empty but funny correlations.

Number of high school students correlating with half-pints of sour cream per American.

Atlantic hurricanes and draft picks by the Boston Celtics.

Box office gross of Oscar Best Picture winners and West Nile virus cases in the United States.

Watch it on Youtube
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