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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
November 17, 2016

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


Arrival, InvisAlign, Arrival again

How many movies have there been about first contact with aliens? There was Carl Sagan's Contact, starring Jodie Foster, and both of the Independence Day movies, and the Superman film franchise. And a lot of TV series, and Stargate, and it's not worth listing them all. Except, of course, to remind you of the brilliant People of Earth.

Did we need another first-contact movie?

I didn't really think so, but the promos for Arrival, starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner, looked very promising. Also promising was the fact that, like The Martian, it was based on an actual story by a real live science fiction writer. It was not a comic book first. It was just ... words.

Ted Chiang, the author of "Story of Your Life," on which Arrival is based, is not a prolific writer. But whatever he writes ends up winning awards, it seems, and young as he looks (in pictures; I've never met him), it's obvious from Arrival that he brings a maturity of vision that is far beyond his years.

Let me warn you, though -- or promise you, depending on your tastes -- Arrival is not a comic book movie. Every now and then somebody hits somebody else. There's exactly one explosion. War threatens, but the body count in this movie is very, very low.

This is a movie for grownups. You can certainly bring children to it, but only if they are able to nap in a theater, because what engages our attention for the first half of this movie is: Science! At a pretty high level, too.

Not high-tech science, but the science of trying to decipher an alien script in order to find out what they're trying to say to us.

Amy Adams place Dr. Louise Banks, a polyglot linguist who is conscripted to figure out what the aliens visitors are trying to say to us. They've perched their huge lens-shaped starships in the air just above twelve different locations on Earth -- not near population centers, not near anything.

When humans enter the alien ships, their gravity changes and they walk up the wall of a tunnel that rises straight up from the ground. When they reach the aliens, it's immediately clear that no human could ever produce the sounds of the alien speech -- whales would have trouble with it -- so how can anybody communicate with them?

Dr. Banks sets things in motion by writing words on a whiteboard -- starting with "human" and then their names. To everyone's surprise, the aliens respond by extending their tentacles and spraying out, into the thick mist of their atmosphere, swirling ink that coalesces somehow into circles.

Only they're not smooth circles. The writing appears as protuberances and wide spots in the edge of the circle, and Dr. Banks soon realizes that these irregularities are the words. Each circle is a complete statement, and the language is not connected with the sounds of the alien speech. They are a thing that doesn't exist on Earth: a written language composed of pure ideographs.

It's the best, smartest fictional writing system I've ever seen.

In the midst of all this hard work of trying to decode the language between visits to the alien ship, Dr. Banks gets little sleep -- but what sleep she gets is troubled by dreams of the life of her child, a beloved girl who grew up only to die in her late teens from a hereditary disease.

The scenes between mother and daughter are powerful and moving. But for a long, long time they seem to have nothing to do with the story of the aliens.

And then they suddenly have everything to do with it.

In fact, not one moment of this film is wasted. Nothing is empty; everything is packed full of information that will be re-conceived more than once before the end of the film.

Here's the problem: Until you know how everything fits together, the first hour of this movie can seem tediously slow. My wife was bored; I wasn't, because I was so enthralled with the absolutely brilliant conception of the alien writing system. But there is a definite sense that we're waiting for the story to start.

We aren't, though. The story has been going full-tilt the whole time. We just don't understand it yet.

I tell my writing students that confusion is not suspense. You don't create suspense in your audience by making them wonder what's going on; you create suspense by making it crystal clear what's going on so that they care deeply about the one or two things you haven't told them yet.

Arrival is a case study in confusion as non-suspense. But I don't know how screenwriter Eric Heisserer could have unfolded events any faster or more clearly. It's simply a hard story to tell.

That's why this isn't suitable for children. There's little bad language and no sex or violence -- though there are a few moments of shock and surprise, and truly alien sights that might give a young kid a few weeks of nightmares.

But there are plenty of adults who won't have the patience for the painstaking process of unfolding the story. And even though Heisserer does as good a job as possible of making everything clear, many adults will never feel as if they know what's going on.

That's because good science fiction requires you to hold everything in abeyance, prepared to fit it into new contexts and discover new meanings as the story unfolds. This is how science fiction is written, and this is how it has to be read. It's a difficult mental exercise -- that's why research on the readers of various genres always show sci-fi readers as markedly smarter than readers of other genres.

Any written genre requires smart readers, mind you. If you read one book a year by your own choice, you're part of the literary elite of the American public. But among that smart group of volunteer readers, sci-fi readers have to perform mental exercises that require a certain level of intelligence that other genres don't require.

Maybe it isn't really about "intelligence" (whatever that is). Maybe it's about the willingness to hold a bunch of unresolved information in your head, trusting that it will all fit together eventually. If you don't enjoy that, then why do it?

You have to decide for yourself whether you're willing to work a little harder to receive the story of Arrival than you did to understand Guardians of the Galaxy (which wasn't all that easy, either, because it, too, was good sci-fi).

Here's what I promise you: If you have the patience to wait for clarity, then this is one of the most beautiful, moving stories I've ever seen on film.

There is no way I can tell you any more than that without wrecking everything. This movie needs the orderly unfolding of the story, at least the first time you see it. I intend to watch it again, this time knowing the end from the beginning; but the first time, you really want to earn the epiphanies that come thick and fast toward the end.

At the end of this column, I'm going to write a little more about this film -- but I'm going to write as if you've already seen the movie. Spoilers galore. So for heaven's sake, if you haven't seen the movie, don't read the last section of this column.

Meanwhile, trust me that Amy Adams gives one of the best performances in her already-amazing career, and Jeremy Renner earns his place beside her. All the actors do a fine job. (So do the aliens, but they're created by computer animators or puppeteers, or some combination thereof.)

Just keep watching, because there are key moments -- a child's artwork on a fridge; a conversation with General Shang (Tzi Ma) at a reception; a gentle conversation between Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner -- when I was blown away by the things that suddenly became clear. Good things. Right things. Beautiful things.

*

I never had braces as a teenager, when most people get them. In the 1960s, braces were still so expensive that they were a kind of status symbol. But I, with teeth so jaggedly arranged that they were the first thing anybody noticed about me, was from a family that couldn't afford such luxuries. Could I bite and chew my food? Yes? Nuff said.

Besides, I didn't actually want braces. They looked uncomfortable and I was used to my weird teeth.

As an adult, though, I had a different view of things, and when, after I came home from my mission in Brazil, my parents offered to pay to have my teeth straightened, I jumped at the chance.

It all went well, except that years afterward, I happened to be in the Detroit area during a winter day so cold that when I inhaled sharply, my lower retainer snapped in half. My orthodontist had died in a private plane accident a while before, so I decided to tough it out without a retainer.

Unfortunately, teeth drift after orthodontia -- that's why they insist on giving us retainers. Mine drifted, and a few years ago, my excellent dentist at the time, Dr. Reid Clark, recommended that if I wanted to be using my own teeth in my eighties and nineties, I needed to get them back in line.

Instead of going to the orthodontist who had done superb work on our kids' teeth, I took a recommendation to an orthodontist who supposedly understood exactly what this second round of braces was supposed to accomplish. Apparently, communication between this orthodontist and my dentist was as bad as communication between the orthodontist and me.

For the final year of wearing braces, I kept telling him: My teeth are not lining up the way that we intended. There are also huge gaps between my lower teeth. We need to close those up and get my incisors back farther so that when the braces come off, I can close my mouth. Me closing my mouth is an audience favorite, and I wanted to be able to do it regularly.

Of course, like too many (but not all) medical professionals, he didn't hear a word I said. He knew what he considered to be a professional job, whether it worked for me or not. So when the braces came off, I was furious that I turned out to be exactly right, and he was hopelessly wrong.

The original problem that required orthodontia -- too much friction between my lower and upper incisors -- was as bad as ever. Only now I had a hard time getting my lower jaw to close, and when I ate, food got painfully stuck in all the ridiculous gaps he had left in my lower teeth.

When you add to that the fact that the chairs in his office were like torture devices (I offered to tell him everything, but he didn't listen to that, either), it's no wonder that I determined never to go back there for any reason. I have so successfully blocked him out of my mind that I can't even remember his name.

I learned that if I wore the retainers he gave me every night, I could close my mouth when I took them out in the morning. And I took to bringing my own toothpicks to restaurants so I could order chicken and beef. It felt like oral surgery after every meal -- not a fun sort of selfie, I assure you.

For the past year or so, after hearing my complaints, my current dentist, Dr. Guy Ribando at Friendly Dentistry, told me about a new kind of "braces" -- InvisAlign. Instead of having metal brackets glued to your teeth and then wired together, with InvisAlign a computer analyzes molds of your teeth and programs the incremental changes that need to take place.

Then the computer creates very tight-fitting clear plastic "trays" that slide over your teeth like a retainer. You use each set of trays for a couple of weeks, then replace them with a new set that are slightly different, so without even going into the dentist's office each time, you can take yourself through three changes in six weeks.

Unlike my previous retainer, which affected my articulation, so I couldn't give speeches or lectures, or do any radio work with them on, the InvisAlign clear aligners don't affect my speech at all. They also can't be seen, even up close, unless I call someone's attention to them.

You can see why teenagers, keenly aware of their appearance, would welcome InvisAlign rather than the unmistakable barbed-wire-fence look of traditional wired braces. The cost is similar (or maybe less; I didn't comparison-shop), and though I'm too old to care whether people think it's weird for a coot like me to be wearing braces, I also like the relative painlessness of the trays.

Both times I wore wire braces, every new alignment meant that a different part of my cheek or lip would be cut to ribbons by the newly-positioned wires and posts. Even with orthodontic wax, it was still a painful irritant. With InvisAlign, the trays are very smooth, with nothing like the same irritation to sensitive mouth skin.

This doesn't mean that there's no pain at all. Teeth are not meant to move as fast as these aligners push them, so you still get the dull ache at the roots for the first few days after each new configuration of trays goes in. And even though the dentist tries to file the edges of the trays so they're smooth, there's going to be some snagging of your tongue and lips and cheek. Nothing remotely like the oral butchery from wired braces, but now and then a surprisingly sharp pain on the underside of your tongue, or some such nonsense.

And it's not as if you don't still have attachments glued to your teeth. Only now they're more like dots than tiny oil derricks, like traditional braces. These pop into slight depressions in the aligners when you slide them on; they help guide your teeth in the direction they're supposed to move -- or keep them from moving in a direction they're not.

All in all, it's pretty amazing. It doesn't take long in the dentist's office, either. And yes, I did mean "dentist," because Dr. Ribando is my dentist, yet he's also trained to do this new kind of orthodontia.

What I wasn't prepared for was a radical change in my lifestyle and health from wearing the InvisAlign trays. You see, the aligners fit so snugly to my teeth, and those attachments do such a good job of holding them in place, that it's kind of a major operation to take them out of my mouth when I'm going to eat.

And even though reinserting them is much easier, you have to clean your teeth very thoroughly -- including flossing -- before you put them back in. I'm using Plackers rather than floss, because floss always cuts me and I don't like bleeding now that I'm on blood thinners.

So here's the deal: If you want the aligners to do their job on schedule, you can't take them out for more than two hours in every twenty-four. You can divide those hours among breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but I don't eat any meal but an early supper, because I generally don't get hungry until about four or five in the afternoon. My wife is content to eat early with me, so I get to invest my entire two hours of tray-free time in a good evening meal.

That means I can eat in restaurants or enjoy my wife's superb cooking and not feel rushed. No disturbance in my meal schedule at all.

But there was a secret I was keeping from myself. I was snacking ... a lot.

It wasn't really a secret. I just thought of a handful of nuts or a small tub of yogurt or a single non-pareil or a cookie or two as pretty much nothing.

I also drank orange juice a lot, as a thirst-quencher, because it tastes better than water.

Toast. Toast is also good. So is cheese. Perhaps you're noticing that these "snacks" are all high-calorie indulgences. Add in a few extra stops at McDonald's now and then to have a Sausage McMuffin With Egg any time of day (thank you, McDonald's), and it's no wonder that the fifty pounds I put on two years ago, when I stopped exercising because of a foot injury, never seemed to go away.

I had reconciled myself to (a) being uncomfortably, can't-bend-over, fat until I (b) die younger than I needed to. But to my surprise, the InvisAlign braces have also been an extremely effective diet aid.

Not the InvisAligns by themselves, of course. A major contribution to my weight loss comes from my extreme laziness. It takes effort and concentration to take out the trays, soak them in a bath of Polident denture cleaner, brush and Placker my teeth, and then put the trays back in. I'm not doing that for a handful of nuts or a slice of cheese.

So I don't eat the snacks. None. I pass up all treats and desserts at parties. If it isn't part of my one leisurely meal a day, I don't eat it.

Or drink it -- the only beverage allowed while wearing the InvisAligns is water. Fortunately, I have long kept my house well stocked with Hint water in my favorite flavors, crisp apple, lime, and pear. So I no longer get those orange juice calories during the day -- only at dinner.

I've been wearing my InvisAligns for only a month now, and by simply eliminating snacks completely, I've lost about fifteen pounds. There's no reason to think the weight loss will stop, because there's another side effect that has happened the other times I've successfully dieted: I don't want to eat as much at mealtime.

I should feel starved and deprived, but instead I don't want as much food as I used to eat. Smaller portions at my one meal each day help me limit my calories much more than eliminating snacks could do on its own.

This means that I now eat as much as I want to at mealtime, and replace between-meal snacking with drinks of Hint water. Because I want less, I eat less, and who knows? If these keeps up, I may be able to bring out some older suits -- The Hub has fitted me out with well-fitting suits at every body weight, so I have a whole collection that I may be able to size down with.

Of course, you shouldn't count your chickens and all that; I need to get a novel finished so I can have the time to start exercising again, because I know from experience that diet without exercise leaves me weak. But already I feel considerably better. At my weight, fifteen pounds is a drop in the bucket -- but it makes a difference climbing stairs and walking and getting into and out of chairs. I can even bend over and pick things up off the ground, something I have rarely been able to do for two years.

In other words, I'm starting to get my body back.

With InvisAlign, what I paid for was good alignment of my teeth, without any of the nonsense and pain I've put up with before. It's just a bonus that I'm also within a few pounds of being able to wear some favorite shirts that I had to stash away two years ago.

*

A shirt company called "Untuck-It" is advertising pretty heavily on social media, and, because I try to sample all kinds of things in order to be able to write about them here, I bought a couple of their shirts in the size I'm wearing right now.

Or so I thought.

I realize that there are no rules governing claims about clothing sizes, but let me just say that Untuck-It's sizing is very small.

I can't say anything about "normal" sizes like small, medium, or large -- those all look like doll clothes to me these days. But when you get up into XXL and XXXL territory, these shirts fit like a shirt one or two sizes smaller from, say, Orvis or Casual Male.

So if you've had any middle-age spread going on, you probably want to buy at least one size larger than you usually do. Apart from that, these seem to be well-made, attractive shirts. { http://www.untuckit.com/collections/men# }

*

We're near the end of this column, and it's time for me to say a few more words about Arrival.

I'm assuming that anyone reading this has already seen Arrival -- or doesn't care about spoilers. I'm in the latter category myself -- in fact, I sometimes insist on knowing the ending before I decide whether to see a movie. But the experience of watching this film benefits from knowing only what the filmmakers want you to know at any given moment.

So if you haven't seen Arrival, I strongly recommend that you stop reading now.

At this point, I'm going to stop emphasizing any sentences using boldface, because I don't want anyone to read a spoiler just by having a headline catch their eye.

This is a time travel story, and the writers are dealing with the standard rules of time travel paradoxes -- so after watching the movie, you probably will have questions about how this would even work.

The simple answer is: It wouldn't. Time only runs in one direction in the real universe, because causality only works in one direction. In this story, however, we have causality on one track, and time on another.

Here's the strongest paradox in the movie. Dr. Banks has to prevent a war from erupting between the aliens and the various human nations trying to communicate with them. China is the leader in this war movement, but other nations are going to follow their lead.

Dr. Banks steals a satellite phone and calls General Shang, the Chinese leader. Whatever she says to him has the desired effect: The Chinese military stands down, and so do the other nations' military forces, including ours. What did she say?

We find out when we see her at a multi-national reception after the aliens have left, where international cooperation is set in motion to exploit the vast and valuable information the aliens gave us. At that reception, General Shang seeks out Dr. Banks and then proceeds to give her the information, including his telephone number, that she will need -- no, had needed -- in order to get his attention and his belief in that phone call a year before.

Cool, right? Well, for the purposes of this movie, yes, it's really cool.

But here's the question for which there is no answer. Dr. Banks has this information when she phones General Shang because she's seen a vision of that meeting at the multi-national reception. Presumably, then, that meeting really takes place -- is required to take place. But in that meeting, Dr. Banks has no idea what General Shang is going to tell her.

What does he tell her? His phone number. And a key piece of information she could not know unless she really can see the future.

So when she arrived at that reception, what did she think had happened? Not yet having received the phone number and other information, what did she think happened to stave off the war between humans and aliens?

Yes, yes, I know all the explanations that sci-fi fans will put forward -- it was a vision, so there was no time when she went to that meeting without already knowing everything. But he still had to tell her all that information so that the earlier version of herself could receive it in the past.

In that case, however, Dr. Banks should welcome General Shang with an attitude of, "I've seen what happens, so let's get on with it." Instead, she looks completely nonplussed, as if she hadn't expected this at all.

The information he gives her, conveyed to her a year before in a dream, is the cause of her ability to stop the war; until they actually met and he shared the information, that information could not be conveyed. So there's a before-and-after causal stream that exists independent of the stream of time. The scene, as we saw it, could never happen.

All time travel stories evaporate on close examination. Aware of all these stock time-travel paradoxes (all sci-fi writers and readers are, ever since Robert A. Heinlein wrote the story "All You Zombies," in which, fortunately, there are no zombies whatsoever), when I wrote my Pathfinder trilogy, I deliberately worked with this exact division between time and causality, flouting all the "rules" of ordinary time travel stories.

Because sometimes you just have to find out if there's a better way.

But this is not really a criticism of Arrival. It is well within the conventions of time travel stories, so audiences have been trained to accept it as if it made sense (which it never does).

What matters more to me about Arrival is the story of Dr. Bridge's daughter, Hannah, and her marriage to Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner). Through the entire movie, even after we see Hannah's drawing of her TV show "Mommy and Daddy Talk to Animals," we think that Hannah's life was in Dr. Banks's past.

Only when we realize that Hannah's entire life is in the future, and Dr. Banks and Ian Donnelly, who met for the first time at the alien ship, are her parents, does it become clear that all of Dr. Banks's dreams were predictive, not memories. We have seen Hannah's life as a past event, but no: When Louise Banks dreams about this child, she is seeing things that have not happened.

We're never told explicitly why, in these visions, Banks and Donnelly get divorced when Hannah is about nine (I'm guessing). But the idea is pretty clear: Banks never told her husband about the hereditary disease that she knew about, and that she knew Hannah would die of. That is such a huge deception that divorce seems understandable; it's clear that Donnelly doesn't reject Hannah, but remains in her life.

This means that Banks decided to have Hannah knowing that she would die young. Arguably, she had to have this child, or she could not have seen the visions of her that opened up so much of the alien language to her in the end.

But it made me and my wife think very hard about this question: If you knew that having a particular child would lead to a tragic, unbearable ending, would you do it anyway?

Of course we thought of our son, Charlie Ben, who was born with cerebral palsy and who died of complications from that condition when he was 17. If we had known, before Charlie was conceived, how limited his life would be, and how painful his death would be to us, would we have given him such a life?

Our answer -- of which we became more certain the more we talked -- was that we would not have evaded that hard part of our lives. Because Charlie -- not just his disability, but his kindness, his patience, his frequent happiness and occasional sorrow -- he made a good life of it, and our family would not be what it is if he had not been such an influential part of it.

As one of our children said to us, years after his passing, "I always thought that we were special because we were Charlie's family."

Of course, if we could have prevented his being crippled, we're not insane -- we would have done whatever it might take. But no one ever determined the cause of his particular type of cerebral palsy (it was not oxygen deprivation at birth, perhaps the most common cause), so we could not prevent it. And given the choice between Charlie Ben as he was, or no Charlie in our lives at all, the choice would not even be hard.

This conversation was a tearful one, because when a child dies, the grief is always waiting there, ready to take over when you give it half a chance. Yet we also rejoiced, because we knew that Charlie Ben had been as much a gift in our lives as our other children, and that he knew much happiness in our company.

Which brings me back to Arrival. The movie takes it for granted that Louise Banks, knowing how things end, would go ahead and marry Hannah's father, give birth to her, and raise her in joy and love. And the movie offers a reason quite apart from human love and family life: The child must exist or Banks could not have decoded the language and saved the world.

But at a much deeper level, Banks must have fallen in love with the child Hannah as we in the audience did. She had Hannah for the sake of the child herself. And that, based on our experience and our feelings, is exactly right. It's the choice we would have made. Human life is full of joy and sorrow; you can't have the joy without risking the sorrow, because the sorrow is at the root of the joy.

This is a sci-fi movie, a really smart one, about first contact with aliens. It's also a time-travel-paradox story, with all the ordinary nonsense and coolness.

But at a much deeper and far more important level, it's a story of love in a family, from its beginning to its heartbreaking but joyful end.

Maybe Arrival won't resonate with you the way it did with us. But I think it probably will. Because if human beings didn't love children, didn't keep on bringing those troublesome, demanding creatures into the world, we would have died out long ago.

It's built into us, to choose to create and raise these people even though we know, right from the start, that they will die. We can only hope that they don't die until after we're gone.


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