this star trek time-travel episode makes you remember what they’re forgetting (which is memorable)

One the nice things about my minor obsession with time-travel movies is that there are so many of them to compare and so many manners of temporal discombobulation in fiction to consider. Almost any variant of time-travel can be found in some movie somewhere, so potential parallels abound, even among movies and shows whose only similarity is a questionable use of physics.

Which leads me to my comparison du jour, between last summer’s would-be blockbuster, Edge of Tomorrow, a Tom Cruise action vehicle, and the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Cause and Effect.”

The connections are obvious if you know both: Edge of Tomorrow is about Major William Cage (Tom Cruise), who experiences one day on repeat, ending each iteration with his death. Upon dying, he awakes at the beginning of that same day, except with the knowledge of every pass-through he’s done before. Similarly, “Cause and Effect” reiterates a single (roughly) 24-hour period, each time ending with the destruction of the Enterprise and everybody aboard.
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pacific rim suspends some of your disbelief, lets some of it fall to the ground in a heap

Suspension of disbelief is not a given. It’s not a license you hand a movie as part of your admission. It’s a negotiation; the suspension needs to be earned. A movie has to win it, minute by minute.

I’m thinking about this because of Pacific Rim, which by turns validates my suspension of disbelief and then squanders it.

Before I get to the why and how (and do some plot spoilage), a primer on the movie: The global menace of the near future turns out to be the “Kaijus,” a breed of Godzilla-sized aliens that appear regularly off the coast of major cities, which they ravage until such time as they are stopped by “Jaegers,” a kind of skyscraper-tall humanoid mecha we’ve designed to battle the Kaijus. The mental effort of manipulating the Jaeger, it is said, is too great a “neural load” for a single person. The solution is that two operators will typically pilot a single Jaeger, requiring them to mind-meld via “the drift,” a method of connecting two minds.

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spike jonze’s her and a cinema of artificial intelligence

In my essay on Her from a couple of weeks ago, I bent over backward trying to figure how the romance between a man and an artificial intelligence could be boiled down to to one of the big archetypal stories or themes that we struggle with as a species, the kind that have been around since the first campfire story. I ended by concluding the only way to make that link between artificial intelligence and our human condition is to look back to the magic of a more primitive time, when spirits and golems were more naturally part of our understanding of the world.

But since then I’ve been wondering whether I’m starting with the wrong question. I’ve been asking, implicitly, how does this relate to humans? when maybe, in the final analysis (that most conclusive of analyses), the movie can’t just be judged only by its significance to our species. What if this movie is not only for humanity? What if the story is in part about extra-human issues?

photo from james childs via cc

photo from James Childs via cc

Her is clearly for and about people to some great degree. But it’s one of the rare movies that would seem to at least hint at the possibility of an entirely inhuman perspective. Samantha, Her’s operating-system-cum-sovereign-being, begins talking at the end about non-matter processing and partaking in some mind-meld that doesn’t sound comprehensible by Theodore’s puny human intellect. It’s a glimpse of a point of view that has completely effaced the human from it.
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spike jonze’s her reminds me of a certain kind of magic

As science fiction movies go, most of the elements of Her would point to a softer brand of sci-fi, one more focused on people, culture, and drama than pure tech itself. Except for the artificial intelligence at its center, the world that director Spike Jonze sketches feels like it’s only five or ten years in the future. I came to think of the Amish-inspired fashions as representative of this general feeling of being close to our own time, maybe because I half-suspect that some hipster is already sporting the high-waisted pants and collar-less button-ups that are à la mode in the movie. It feels like it’s only a matter of time before couture starts pushing this look on urban professionals everywhere.

Like the clothing, other details in the movie make it easy to imagine some movie critic talking about how Her may be sci-fi but is really about “how we live today” or something. In the world of Her, you’ll have a fancy hologram display in your living room, but you’ll use it for motion-controlled games of the kind you already know all too well now. When you see Theodore Twombly (played by Joaquin Phoenix and the Him to the eponymous “Her”) make his spaceman climb through a cave by a kind of digging motion, you realize that the sight seems utterly natural because we’re already so used to seeing adults play the kind of repetitive games that were once only marketed to kids.
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second-guessing slate’s sci-fi shorts selections, day 6

Okay, this is the sixth and last day of my reviewing’s best sci-fi shorts of 2012, and boy are my arms tired.

Sight is the best of all the shorts, I think. Reviewing these things has got me thinking about how we take for granted that things will be laid out for us in a way that’s easy to follow, that continuity will only be broken in very intentional ways, and that the tone of the film will be clear enough for us to know what the filmmakers are going for at any moment.

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second-guessing slate’s sci-fi shorts selections, day 5

For this fifth film in my series on’s choice of sci-fi shorts from 2012, I’ve got Gamma, whose good and bad points have a lot of parallels with yesterday’s short, Seed. As with everything else in this series, I’m assuming you’ll watch before reading, so beware spoilers.

First, the positives. As in Seed, the visuals of Gamma are haunting and beautiful. And Gamma, again like Seed, gives us a world that feels possible and believable, in large part because of the images of decay and industrial rot that are familiar enough in our everyday lives, but also because the advertisement that begins the film feels like the real product of a hip ad agency.

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