dir: Denis Villeneuve
There aren’t many science fiction films that leave me crying or thoughtful as I sit blubbing through the credits. The reason is this – most science fiction flicks aren’t really science fiction flicks. They’re action flicks with science fiction set dressing and costuming.
Arrival is definitely not an action flick masquerading as a science fiction flick. It is certainly about a first contact scenario with what we would call actual alien aliens, who appear on Earth without even the courtesy of an advance email or nothin’.
They just appear, and they don’t even seem to want anything. They don’t want our resources, or our women, or anything. They just sit there, in their ships, waiting.
This is enough to make the leaders of several countries think “We should be blowing the ever-living fuck out of them, because their very presence makes us uncomfortable”.
It’s frustrating to see, but when I look at the world we currently live in, it doesn’t seem that far fetched. When some ‘just listening to right-wing extremists on the internet’ Marines think, for no sensible reason “well, let’s just blow them up!”, it seems discordant, and arbitrary, but again, I look at Trump’s America, and I don’t think the naughty soldiers would have even been able to wait as long as they did.
It’s a common staple of American flicks that society, at least American society, will fall apart at the slightest encouragement, whether it’s a zombie infestation, some kind of epidemic or the victory / loss of a particular football team. You can add ‘first contact with mysterious but non-aggressive alien species’ to the list, because even in this relatively gentle flick, humanity loses its shit pretty goddamn quickly.
In a tribute to science, at least a couple of Americans don’t lose their minds completely. Linguistics professor Dr Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and some other guy (Jeremy Renner) are brought in by the US military to try and figure out how to communicate with the aliens, who don’t seem to be forthcoming with the explanations or the vocabulary or anything.
Of course, you could have just had some of the dumber soldiers scream “Speak English or Die , you illegal aliens, or we’ll deport you!” at them until they learnt how to communicate, but maybe the measured, calm, intellectual approach will work out better.
Louise is scared, because, honestly, such a situation should be terrifying, but the intellectual challenge appeals to her strongly, and she approaches the task in ways that require her to ignore or at least pacify the increasingly belligerent hierarchy around her.
They are made up mostly of a no-nonsense Colonel (Forest Whitaker) who keeps goading her to ask the aliens what their business is, already, and some lunatic CIA guy (Michael Stuhlbarg) who everyone treats seriously (even though they shouldn’t), who deliberately misinterprets every single thing the academics slowly tease out of their interactions with the aliens to justify launching some suicidally stupid military attack.
If the aliens signalled something about ‘popcorn’, he would be screaming ‘Shoot Them, Shoot Them; they’re here to ‘Pop’ our ‘Corn’. If they said something about puppies he’d find a way to make it a declaration of war.
I understand the reason why you have characters like this in even the most thoughtful science fiction: i.e., they represent many of the belligerent idiots in the world and in our own lives who are completely deaf and blind to facts or reason, or their absence, but I do find them to be tiresome stereotypes.
The aliens themselves – well, they’re pretty freaky-deaky. They clearly are not bipedal humanoids like 99% of the aliens we usually see in these kinds of flicks. Like I joked to my partner as we watched this, decades of Star Trek and Star Wars films have indoctrinated us, both nerds and not-nerds, into thinking that if we ever get to see actual aliens in our lifetimes, we would expect them to look pretty much like us except with some minor variations, like green paint jobs, ridges on foreheads or pointy ears.
It’s probably far more likely, if the Christian God allows evolution to happen the same way on other planets in His miraculous Creationist / Intelligent Designer way (of course I am kidding please stop the hate mail), that of course those organisms are going to be ‘best fit’ for their planets’ environments and biomes, with their unique atmospheres and conditions. Even if you found another planet that was identical to Earth gravity-wise, chemical composition, atmospherically etc there’s no reason for any of the organisms to evolve like our planet’s organisms did, because, you know, random natural selection on the micro and macro scales and all that.
Blah blah yes of course I’m going off topic, but this flick inspires thought and enquiry rather than shutting your brain down with explosions and fistfights. It gets pretty technical in some of its detail, but that helps make Louise and Ian seem more credible in their frankly baffling attempts to make sense of the aliens. Even if we have no idea how they figure out what they do, we can at least accept that the characters (since we can’t, unless the ‘we’ I’m referring to includes Noam Chomsky in the audience, in which case he’d probably work it out easy peasy lemon squeezy).
In the background there’s an escalating tension as the leaders of other countries (initially the world’s poindexters and eggheads try to work together, but that gets shut down pretty quickly) start getting more terrified / belligerent of the visitors, and start thinking that blowing shit up is the way to go, but Louise trusts that what is really required is just more time, more communication, more collaboration. She trusts that the two species will eventually be able to understand each other enough despite their vast differences, in order to communicate what each side wants, because anyone and anything, most of all, wants to express its hopes and dreams.
It could be a vain hope, but she’ll keep trying as long as she can. Interwoven with her attempts to reach out are scenes where she seems to be remembering something quite beautiful and quite tragic that happened in her recent past, that increasingly informs her thinking, her remembrances, her interactions.
But that’s not what’s actually happening, which adds, at the end, a whole other level of heartfelt poignancy, both subtle and sublime. In trying to learn the alien language, for a linguist, who knows of the kinds of ideas around how language shapes worldview / reality, that the brain has structures that adapt to language, we see that Louise will change as well, and in ways that might help solve the ‘puzzle’ before it is too late, but that aren’t going to make life any easier for her, in fact, far from it.
Adams perfectly plays this character. She doesn’t overact at all, which is a surprising thing to write. She plays this character like she’s playing a character that’s not in a science fiction / genre piece. She doesn’t usually overact, I’m not implying that, it’s just that many flicks don’t bother using her talent for quiet understatement, and the emotion she can convey just with her eyes. Sure, let her keep earning big dollars from the increasingly stupid Superman flicks under Zack Snyder’s poisonous, dumbening direction, but let her keep making decent flicks like this. We all benefit from it. Jeremy Renner is also a solid co-star in this, ably supporting Adams but aiming for intelligent understatement rather than swinging for the fences. I forget how well he can do away from superhero flicks, too.
You could argue that half of the film’s work is done by the soundtrack, even more than the deliberately mysterious editing (which only makes sense at the end). The use of Max Richter’s The Nature of Sunlight is especially gutting, since there’s a link between using lots of violins and our heart strings, and every composer and director knows it. If you have some scenes in your film and you really, really want your audience to drown in their own feels, then this piece, this goddamn piece is the one you play at the beginning and at the end.
You play it at the beginning to let your audience know this is meant to be a thoughtful flick. You play it at the end to make sure what’s left of their hearts is broken into tiny pieces.
Arrival is not the only one of its kind, but it certainly is special. I would avoid over-hyping it to people (it’s been nominated for prestigious awards, so it may be too late) because this isn’t the flick you except, that you can expect, and if you tell people enough about it for it to make sense, it won’t impact in the same way. Fair warning. I did find it thoughtful and beautiful, and I wanted to sleep for a week afterwards, so I could process the hope and the sorrow.
It’s almost too much.
9 times I am unsure I would be as brave as Louise out of 10
“Zài zhànzhēng zhōng méiyǒu yíngjiā zhǐyǒu guǎfù” – In war there are no winners, only widows - Arrival