Archive for the Science Category

My Westworld Theories

Posted in Science, Television with tags on November 26, 2016 by dcairns


Alright, so we know something’s going on in this show, albeit very slowly. But what? Here are my theories.

  1. The show is actually set in the wild west, for real. Some very smart fellow in post-Civil War Utah has invented robots early. Naturally, he’s used them to create a theme park representing life in the future, as a cowboy scientist of the nineteenth century might imagine it: all gleaming white walls (in reality, our futuristic walls are magnolia and dusty). To make Futureworld seem convincing, he needed to include leisure activities, so he added Westworld, using his home town to represent the theme park within the theme park. Also, everyone’s been dead all along.
  2. The show is actually set in the far future. A nuclear war instigated by our current president-elect has sent humanity back to the wild west age. Time travelers from the present have arrived, and mistaken this environment for a wild west theme park. They run around gleefully shooting everyone like idiots, believe they’re only robots. They set up a big glass hospital to repair the slain “robots” every night, not realizing it’s their own descendents they’re murdering and robotizing. Also, it’s all a dream.
  3. The show is actually set in the present. A well-heeled cable company decided to create a show set in the future in a theme park simulating the wild west with robots. They hire actors to play both robots and humans, build sets, and have “scenarios” prepared by writers. The while thing goes out on TV and nobody suspects that the TV show is actually a cunning construct, based on an old movie. Anthony Hopkins has been dead for years.
  4. It’s set in Romanworld but the robots all revolted years ago and decided to play at being cowboys (hence the big orgy, clearly out of place in its setting).
  5. Everyone’s been dead all along. They’ve been hooked up to a computer that programmes their corpse-brains with a simulation/dream, which is better than going to heaven (no cowboy sex in heaven). It was supposed to be Medievalworld (hence all the heads on spikes, clearly out of place in their setting) but a computer glitch sent them forward into the old west. The staff aren’t part of the simulation, they really are robots, but they think they’re dead.

I guess that clears it up. Maybe now there’ll be some peace around here.

Abbot and Costello Go To Earth

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Painting, Politics, Science with tags , , , , , , , on November 12, 2016 by dcairns


ARRIVAL is a thing of beauty. If you’re in need of a shot of hope, a movie that acknowledge’s humanity’s gross collective stupidity while holding out some possibility for improvement, it may do you some good.

Dennis Villeneuve makes beautiful images, perhaps tending to exploit shallow focus a little TOO much, but in doing so he uses it in unexpected ways, sometimes throwing the whole subject of the shot into an artful blur. Tricks with gravity also allow images to be inverted or tilted ninety degrees, calling to mind the “familiar object photographed from an unusual angle” round of questions from Ask the Family. Add smoke and other atmospheric effects, and a lot of discordant yet eerily beautiful music — including the de rigeur terror honks heard in nearly every large-scale sci-fi/psychological horror film in recent years. (I think David Lynch may have invented the terror honk as a film music device, in WILD AT HEART. Would be interested in earlier examples.)


We know how good Amy Adams is. Here she seizes the opportunity of playing a character freaked out and terrified for the whole movie. While Sandra Bullock in GRAVITY is specifically frightened of the exact situations she’s faced with (already nervous about being in space, she has to face cosmic debris, oxygen starvation, the absence of George Clooney), Adams seems generally nervous and lacking in confidence. Part of the job of a good dramatic screenwriter is to use situations to test character — so it’s often a good idea to put the worst possible character in the situation, forcing them to tackle their weaknesses and uncover their strengths. Or you can find the worst possible situation for an otherwise capable character, as with Indiana Jones and his fear of snakes. It gets more subtle when the lines are blurred ~


Adams plays a linguist called in to help translate the speech of a race of visiting aliens, the heptapods (we meet two, nicknamed Abbot & Costello). She’s an awesomely skilled linguist, faced with a problem nobody has ever had to tackle before. The aliens have two distinct languages, one for speech (various echoing rumbles and clicks and digitial didgeridoo drones) and one for writing (forms resembling a cross between a Rorschach test and a coffee cup stain). She also has to deal with politicians and the military, who don’t understand the task she has been set, or anything else, really. One can imagine her role played with a lot of acidity and aggression, because she has to deal with fools, and at times it’s even written that way, but by playing this woman as a character for whom that doesn’t come easily, Adams raises the stakes and makes everything more interesting. That’s what you want from an actor.

Also Jeremy Renner and Forrest Whitaker, very good.


Abbot and Costello are admirable too. Convincingly alien and strange, combining qualities of squids and hands, they are never not alarming. I wasn’t so keen on the spaceships — they are unusual and odd, and reveal different qualities from different angles, but are somehow not awe-inspiring. It’s a difficult brief. The huge craft of INDEPENDENCE DAY were impressive (in a terrible film) because they filled the sky. These long, bean-like things, which turn out to be scooped almost hollow at the back, don’t have any menacing weight. Their defiance of gravity puts me in mind of Magritte’s wondrous painting The Castle of the Pyrenees, but they’re not bulky enough so they crucially lack the sense of heft defied.

Is this a golden age of science fiction dawning? This one is clever. It feels very rewatchable, too. See it big.



Werner Herzog Eats His Sandwich

Posted in FILM, Science with tags , , , on October 14, 2016 by dcairns

“I never dream. Or very rarely; once a year, perhaps. And then it is always EXTREMELY BANAL. For instance, I am eating a sandwich.”

“That’s a good dream.”

The first speaker is Werner Herzog, the second is his interviewer, the filmmaker Richard Ayoade. Their conversation in London was being beamed around by satellite so I was able to see it in Glasgow at the building site formerly known as the Glasgow Film Theatre. A vivid illustration of connectivity, the subject of Herzog’s new documentary, LO AND BEHOLD: REVERIES OF THE CONNECTED WORLD.


This one’s about the internet. We get a little history, engagingly told, and we get some speculation (what if solar flares caused the web to go down? what will the internet’s contribution be to life on Mars?) and we get to meet some people who have had interesting, tragic problems. One family was attacked by strangers who posted accident scene photographs of their dead daughter/sister. “I think the internet is evil. I think it’s the Antichrist,” says the mother. Werner doesn’t question her judgement.

Nor does he question the people who have moved into the shade of a radar telescope to find relief from their supposed wi-fi allergy. All internet and mobile phone signals are blocked in this area. I’m very sympathetic to these people, though I believe their symptoms are psychosomatic: their suffering is certainly real. So I wasn’t too bothered by the fact that Herzog doesn’t explore the validity of their claims and just lets them state their beliefs.

The one Herzog doc I didn’t like was WILD BLUE YONDER, which used NASA footage within a fictional framework. Herzog’s vision of sci-fi turned out to be pure pulp, and his grasp of science seemingly pathetic. There was a lack of curiosity about his making-shit-up approach which really annoyed me. And yet, he’s wonderfully curious and open in most of his films. Science is probably not his subject — we get to see a very complicated equation being sketched on a blackboard, but we are given no clue as to its significance. Herzog prefers mystery to explanation. But by focussing mainly on human consequences of science, he makes something very compelling and credible.

I don’t believe the internet is the Antichrist. My experiences on it have been mainly very nice, but I acknowledge the existence of what the movie terms “The Dark Side.” The internet, like Soylent Green, is made of people. It’s an environment where your virtual actions can seem to be consequence-free, so to some extent it encourages people to unleash their worst possible traits. There’s some good discussion in the film about what kind of oversight we would ideally want on the internet — not too much, not too little. But short of pursuing a North Korean policy, control of any kind seems hard to achieve.


Good discussion after the film, led by Ayoade — refreshingly, there were plenty of questions not just about the issues raised, but about Herzog’s filmi-making choices — staging, framing, interaction with subjects. When Elon Musk talks about trips to Mars, Herzog breaks in with “I volunteer. I will go. One way.” To Ayoade, he explained why this interjection was necessary: Musk is very shy. After Herzog’s expostulation, he opened up.

Werner Herzog: a people person.