Friday, March 10, 2017

Arrival (21 Laps Entertainment, FilmNation Entertainment, Lava Bear Films, Xenolinguistics, Paramount, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Our “feature” last night was a movie I’d been waiting to watch since I bought the Blu-Ray disc (this one did not come with a second disc containing a DVD version): Arrival, the quite moving and intense 2016 science-fiction film from French Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (incidentally his first name is pronounced “Deh-NEE,” with the “s” being silent) based on a script by Eric Heisserer which in turn started life as a short story by Ted Chiang called Story of Your Life, which I’d like to read sometime. (The film was first made under the title Story of Your Life but preview audiences were hostile towards that name, which led the producing companies to come up with something that sounded more “science-fictiony.”) Arrival stars Amy Adams in a quite remarkable performance as Louise Banks (though for some reason just about everyone else in the cast pronounces her name “Luis,” as if she were a Latino male instead of an Anglo female), who in the opening sequences we see with her daughter Hannah at their beach home: we get an encapsulated version of Hannah’s childhood, with three actresses playing her (Jadyn Malone at six, Abigail Pniowsky at eight and Julia Scarlet Dan at 12), before she dies of cancer (our last glimpse of her is in bed, bald, no doubt from the effects of chemo). Then — or at least we’re led to believe it’s “then” (more on that later) — Louise, a linguistics professor, notices that virtually nobody is in the lecture theatre where she gives her main class, and the few people who bothered to show up couldn’t be less interested in what she has to say. One of the students asks if the classroom TV can be tuned into a news channel, and when Louise does this she learns what’s got everyone else so excited: 12 mysterious spacecraft have landed on Earth. Well, they haven’t landed, actually; the aliens’ technology allows them to have their craft hover a few feet above the ground of Earth, and they’ve sent their ships to a varied set of Earth locales, including one in Montana (the only one in the U.S.).

Louise is asked by Col. Weber (Forest Whitaker, an actor whose entire career practically defines “ill-used” — his incandescent performance as Charlie Parker in Clint Eastwood’s Bird should have made him a major star and won him an Academy Award, but neither happened and he spent a lot of the next two decades directing Black-themed independent movies before finally winning the Oscar as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland) to take charge of communicating with the aliens, who clearly have some sort of language. Col. Weber picked her because she’d been successful at a previous assignment for the U.S. military — translating some Farsi videotapes by Iranian terrorists — but she protests that she’d already known Farsi whereas decoding an alien language that may be the product of a pattern of thought totally different from that of humans is going to be a major challenge unlike anything she’s done before. While on the assignment she meets and works with Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), and she seems to be personally attracted to him as well even though he’s so diffident he’s barely even there. (I can imagine why Renner would want to take a part totally different from his star-making turn as the crazy gung-ho unit commander in The Hurt Locker, but this was really overdoing it.) At first the crew handling the visitations are allowed to go into the aliens’ spacecraft only in orange haz-mat suits (I began to wonder if the aliens would think that’s what humans looked like — with orange skin and windows over their faces), but at one point Louise gets frustrated and takes her off despite all the warnings she’s getting from Weber and his colleagues down at the base camp outside the landing site that she risks contamination from alien bacteria or whatever. Eventually she deciphers the aliens’ language and also gets to see what they look like: they’re blob-like creatures that resemble earth octopi except they can walk and survive on land (albeit without leaving any footprints behind) and they have one fewer leg, which leads the earth crew to call them “heptapods” (Greek for “seven-legged”). Louise figures out that heptapods write using a whole different thought process from that they use when they speak, and she figures out their written language — which is basically formed by spitting out clouds of ink which resolve themselves into circles, but with various blotches and tails that communicate their message. (Since each circular ideogram communicates an entire word, phrase or sentence, their writing is closer to Chinese, Japanese or Korean characters than anything based on an alphabet.)

Arrival is a fascinating movie, obviously aimed at competing with previous “serious” science-fiction films like The Day the Earth Stood Still, 2001: A Space Odyssey and the Russian Solaris (the first The Day the Earth Stood Still and 2001 are actually referenced in the movie, as is E.T., though through visual rather than verbal quotes), and it’s a moving tale of a part of human-alien interaction most science-fiction films either ignore completely or slough off. (In The Day the Earth Stood Still and quite a few other films that followed its model, we were told that the aliens had monitored Earth’s radio and TV broadcasts and from those had taught themselves English and other earth languages. In other movies, including the “dicto-robitary” from Plan Nine from Outer Space, authors posited the existence of a universal translating machine, one of those dorky sci-fi concepts a speaker at a previous ConDor convention said would be scientifically impossible.) Arrival is a fascinating film not only because the central concept is compelling but because Villeneuve directs it in a slow-paced way with surprisingly little suspense and almost no action — a far cry from the shoot-’em-up space operas we get in most science-fiction films today. He’s clearly a master of atmosphere, and Arrival contains shots of almost chilling physical beauty despite the overcast weather through most of the film (in the making-of featurette he said he wanted it to look like the view from a school bus on a rainy Tuesday, with a whole bunch of restive kids bracing themselves for a lousy day). He’s helped by a script by Heisserer that totally avoids over-explaining things, a common trap for science-fiction writers. We never learn for sure just who the aliens are, how their society functions back home, what their motivation for coming to earth was or whether they’ve accomplished it when they leave — and the film is more powerful than it would be if all that were explained to us. As a joke the humans name the two aliens they see “Abbott” and “Costello” (which one contributor suggested was a reference to the “Who’s on First?” comedy routine and other gags the original Abbott and Costello did based on horrendous miscommunications between the two), and though eventually Louise and her crew manage to figure out how to read the aliens’ writing and duplicate it so they can converse, the aliens’ responses are infuriatingly gnomic. “Get weapon,” one of them reads, which causes the military people in charge of the first contacts around the world to freak out and decide the alien ships are the vanguard of an invasion force and therefore we should close down all communication and just shoot at them.

In a lot of respects Arrival is the kind of movie I like — it sets up an unusual premise, though one so obvious you think, “How come that never occurred to me before?,” and it’s skillfully acted and directed (though Amy Adams didn’t get the Academy Award nomination she deserved for her performance — at least some commentators believe there was a last-minute surge for Meryl Streep in Florence Foster Jenkins after her anti-Trump comments at the Golden Globes and thus Streep got her 20th Oscar nomination and shut out a lot of younger and equally deserving performers, including Adams) — but it had one aspect that really rankled me. The conceit behind the story is that the aliens don’t think in linear patterns and have no conception of time as a one-way continuum of past-present-future. O.K., but if they have no linear thought patterns, how did they build spaceships in the first place? Don’t you have to think in linear terms to be able to develop technology at all? And what’s even worse, the filmmakers use this conceit to set up a truly revolting surprise ending à la The Sixth Sense, in which [spoiler alert!] we’re told at the end that what we thought was a prologue and periodic flashbacks showing Louise with her daughter Hannah were actually events that occurred to her after the alien visitation, and that Jeremy Renner’s character, whom she met during the visitation, was Hannah’s father. Villeneuve says during his interview for the making-of featurette that he was really attracted to this part of the story and in particular whether someone would willingly enter into a romantic relationship even while knowing in advance it was going to end badly — her lover would leave her and then their child would die of cancer. I really don’t like non-linear stories — I remember reviewing Olivier Assayas’ demonlover and thinking it was one of the worst films I’d ever seen precisely because Assayas got on his post-modern soap box and actively discouraged his audiences from connecting any of the film’s events to each other — though I gave a pass to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind because it was about two people whose memories had been largely erased, and therefore it had to be non-linear to depict how the leads were recovering their senses of themselves and each other from the shards of memory that came to them in random order. I don’t particularly like non-linear movies in general, and I like even less the implied propaganda of this film that it’s better to think non-linearly than linearly — and that aspect of Arrival really put me off even though overall I quite liked the film and thought it was ambitious and largely successful in its attempt to be a human drama and not just another high-tech shoot-’em-up.