I’ve been excited about Arrival for months and had hoped to see the movie shortly after it premiered, but plans, being plans, naturally fell through. So Mekaela and I decided to watch it on Thanksgiving instead because, you know. First contact, and all that jazz.
I liked Arrival–it’s well-crafted and interesting–but, being the disappointment to the SF/F community that I so often am, I can’t quite say that I loved it like everyone else seems to.
Twelve alien spaceships land in twelve different countries on Earth. Louise (Amy Adams) is a linguist who is called upon by the US government in an effort to communicate with the aliens in Montana. Ian (Jeremy Renner), a physicist, also helps. Like, once. He’s helpful once.
1. There’s a lot I want to say about Arrival that I can’t, at least, not until the Spoiler Section. So instead, we’ll start with how roughly 90% of all the reviews I’ve read have made the point of explaining that this isn’t your typical shoot ’em up, laser-filled, alien invasion story. A representative example from Vogue:
Arrival is one of the very best Hollywood movies this year, but it’s not remotely what you expect it to be. When you think of films about visitors from outer space, you probably conjure up images of the White House blowing up or goopy, big-teeth aliens jumping out of people’s bellies.
And I’m like . . . um, no. I mean, sure, sometimes, but it’s not all Independence Day and Alien, like, Close Encounters of the Third Kind anyone? Come on, reviewer, did you not see the same trailer I saw? Like, what about that preview screams goopy aliens and Roland Emmerich levels of destruction porn? When I saw that trailer, the first thing I thought was–okay, the first thing I thought was “OOOOH, alien languages,” but the second thing I thought was “so, this is the spiritual successor to The Day The Earth Stood Still, yes?” I didn’t believe for a moment that the aliens had come to blow up buildings and/or eat us.
And, hey, to be fair, maybe this reviewer didn’t see any trailers. I don’t know how that works; perhaps the majority of movie critics only saw the word “aliens” before sitting down for their early screening. But that’s kind of frustrating too, because that makes me feel like these critics just assume every SF movie is a shoot ’em up space flick, and that leaves me feeling pretty cranky. Because one, it’s so ridiculously not true, and two, I feel like it holds all science fiction at kind of a low bar, which gets condescending quick, like if a grown-up were to enthusiastically congratulate a child for adding 2+2 when the kid has already long since mastered long division. You know, I don’t wanna hear people telling me Arrival is great, you know, “for a science fiction movie.” Take that shit and shove it. (This assumption also seems to suggest that shoot ’em space movies can’t be intelligent at the same time, which is another annoyance for a different day.)
Of course, Arrival was also loved by all kinds of SF nerds, who described the film in similar ways: mind-blowing, heartbreaking, best movie of the year, etc. So the gulf between my mild reaction to the film and what feels like Everyone Else on the Planet’s wildly jubilant reaction to the film can’t be entirely explained away by non-nerd hyperbole alone. Though I wish it could. I’m critical by nature–it’s just my way–but I’m also fully capable of SQUEE and I genuinely like liking stuff. And I did like this one, just, nowhere near as much as most people, apparently. Which means getting to walk the tricky line between being critical and being defensive. Let me strap on my balance shoes.
2. Here’s something I really did enjoy: all the linguistics shit.
The reason I was so interested in seeing this movie wasn’t because it starred Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner (although that was a plus) or because it was based on a novella written by Ted Chiang (which I still haven’t read, since we’re putting all our Failure to the SF/F Community cards on the table today). It was, as I mentioned before, because I find the idea of alien languages fascinating, how they sound (if they sound), how they’re structured (do they have grammatical gender? What about gendered pronouns–and, for that matter, do they have genders and/or pronouns at all), are they built upon a shared understanding of specific narratives and imagery (DARMOK AND JALAD AT TANAGRA!) Alien languages are especially exciting in first contact stories, when there’s a mutual struggle for understanding and such a high probability of mistakes and mistranslation, so yeah, in this regard, Arrival is totally my jam. I was super interested in all of this, although I couldn’t tell you how realistic any of it was, as I am very much not a linguist. (Though I have friends who are! Robyn, if you read this review, I expect you to tell me your thoughts on this, and I care not that you’ve probably already had this discussion with everyone you’ve ever met, for I am, obviously, the most important person here.)
My only problem with the language stuff is the huge step we seem to skip in the middle. Like, obviously we’re not going to go over every bit of the communication process, not if we want to keep this movie under two hours (which, yes, we absolutely do), but for a movie that burns at rather a slow pace, man, we certainly rushed through the Learning Curve Montage, like, holy shit, our heroes practically have a pocket sized alien dictionary now, and I’m just like how? Again, I didn’t need to see Louise learn the meaning of every symbol, but I feel like we should have gotten to see the discovery of at least one or two of them, you know? Like, weapon, perhaps. Maybe we can see how the hell Louise translated a circle-y symbol thing into “weapon.”
Though I guess I should just be happy that no one translated anything through the Magic Power of Wind Knowledge.
3. The acting, at least by Amy Adams, is also phenomenal.
Don’t get me wrong: there’s nothing wrong with the rest of the cast. Jeremy Renner is totally fine as Ian; it’s just that the role asks so very little of him. The same goes with Forest Whitaker, which is presumably why he attempts whatever random accent he’s going for. (I couldn’t say whether it’s a good accent or a bad one; I just kept noticing it because I knew that wasn’t his actual accent, and there didn’t seem to be any story-reason to have one at all, unless it’s a detail from the original novella.) And I actually like Tzi Ma quite a bit; he just doesn’t have a particularly large part in the movie, unfortunately.
Amy Adams, meanwhile, might be looking at a Best Actress nod, and admittedly, Amy Adams feels like she could be the next Meryl Streep, who sometimes seems to get Oscar nods just for rolling out of bed. Regardless, it’s a great performance. Adams is especially effective at conveying her increasingly distraught emotional state without constantly breaking down in melodramatic sobs, which I appreciated. She ranges between grief and joy effortlessly, and it’s her excellent performance that gives this movie heart. In the Spoiler Section I’ll attempt to analyze why I wasn’t as emotionally affected by this story as most everyone else, but what I can say here is that anything I did feel was almost certainly because of Amy Adams’s considerable talent.
4. Arrival has some wonderfully lovely cinematography. It’s a beautifully shot film with some great design elements: I really liked the spaceships, as well as the aliens themselves. And the scene where Louise is boarding the alien structure for the first time is just awesome, like, the way the gravity shifts were done . . . brilliant. It really does a wonderful job putting the audience in Louise’s perspective.
5. Finally, I meant what I said in the summary: Ian strikes me as a little useless.
In some ways this doesn’t bother me, like, Louise is the real hero of this story, and that’s just fine. But the way Ian seems to frame it, both of them are giving equally important contributions, working together, the only two people in the whole military camp who have a clue what’s happening . . . and I’m like, I’m sorry, Ian, have you been doing something other than holding an iPad this whole time? I must have missed it. (Thankfully, he eventually does figure out something. Still, it seems to take an awfully long time.)
I have much more to say about Ian, his somewhat shaky narrative purpose, and the film as a whole, but unfortunately I can’t get into that without Spoilers. So let’s just get right to it, shall we?
Two things happen at the beginning of Arrival:
1. Louise’s daughter, Hannah, dies.
Cancer, naturally. Which isn’t to say that cancer isn’t awful because it absolutely is, and we’ve all lost at least one person–if not more–to it, haven’t we? It certainly seems that way most days. So, seriously, Fuck Cancer. But if aliens learned our history and culture from watching movies, you’d have to forgive them for thinking that cancer was the only fatal disease in the world. Hell, sometimes I think humans forget that too. More Americans (sorry, I don’t have global stats) die from sepsis than prostate cancer, breast cancer, and AIDS combined, but it’s pretty rare you see anyone dying from sepsis in a movie, at least not in movies that take place in industrialized countries in the modern day. You might see someone die of “infection” in a movie that takes place in the 1800’s or something, but rarely in the age of antibiotics, and almost never is it actually called “sepsis.” Not to mention, so many of these cancer deaths aren’t even about battling cancer itself: I think Hollywood just likes killing characters that way because a bald head and a hospital gown is such easy shorthand. You know, tragedy delivered. No exposition required.
2. As Hannah dies, Louise narrates a little about time, about beginnings and endings and that sort of thing, which is how I knew that this movie would have some kind of time twist . . . because, seriously, you don’t have an opener like that if you’re not going to play around with time travel or the story’s narrative order or something. I didn’t know exactly what the twist would be, although I’ll admit that I should probably have figured it out faster than I did. (I got sort of hung up on the idea that maybe the alien language dealt specifically with memory, that the key to understanding their language had to do with finding the context in your own past.) But yeah, something tricky with time was definitely afoot.
This is what was afoot:
That first scene we see of Hannah dying? That takes place in the future. She hasn’t been born when the aliens land because Louise and Ian don’t meet until then, and Ian, it turns out, is Hannah’s father. All of Louise’s supposed flashbacks to Hannah throughout the movie are actually flash-forwards. And it turns out that the aliens have come to Earth to give us the gift of their language, which allows those who understand it to also fully visualize time, which means forget trying to learn French from Duolingo; you learn this language and you can see the motherfucking future.
Also, it’s Louise’s glimpses into time that allow her to save the day, so to speak. General Shang (Tzi Ma) of China interprets the aliens’ message of “use weapon” as a threat and plans to attack them, with multiple other countries likely to follow suit. (Some American soldiers have already taken matters into their own hands and set off a bomb, killing Abbott, one of the aliens.) But Louise sees herself talking to General Shang in the future at some fancy diplomatic party, and he tells her the words that she needs to say to him in the present to make him stand down. When he does, the other countries also back down and begin talking to one another again. (In their paranoia, they’ve stopped communicating.) And thus the gift of the alien timey-wimey language is not lost.
Okay. There’s a lot to unpack here, and I have many, MANY thoughts. Let’s try to tackle them one at a time.
A. The idea of a language that can essentially open up time is just . . . cool. It strikes me as more of an artistic idea, rather than a realistic one, but I don’t care about that in the slightest. It’s just totally fascinating. ALL THE AWESOME ALIEN LANGUAGE STUFF.
B. I should’ve probably known that Ian was Hannah’s father earlier than I did.
Up till a certain point, there’s been no mention of a father at all; then, in one flash forward, Louise says something about Hannah’s dad being gone (apologies, I can’t remember the exact line) and I feel like that should have been the moment. Mostly, though, I was annoyed because I thought Arrival was just awkwardly trying to explain away Louise’s single mother status, and I was like, Why? She can just be a single mother; unless it’s relevant to the story, I don’t need to know a single thing about this guy/sperm donor. We don’t need a mean ex or tragic dead husband or anything like that. I do not require a justification or explanation for single parenthood.
But of course it is relevant to the story, something I figured out as soon as Louise tells Hannah in a different flash-forward that if she has a science question, she should go ask her father about it. Because, you know. Ian is very prominently a scientist. Like it’s one of the only things I know about him as a character. I’m a little surprised he doesn’t just wear a shirt that says SCIENTIST on it all the time. And, in fact, he’s about the only scientist character in the whole movie, (well, depending on how you define the study of linguistics–there seems to be some general confusion/dissent, but either way, it’s not like Louise can be the father too), not to mention that she barely talks to anybody but Jeremy Renner in this movie. Forest Whitaker, occasionally. So, yeah, it’s not a huge deductive leap to realize that Ian is the Unseen Daddy.
And once I realized that, I realized that every scene we’d had of Hannah so far (up to and including the first one with her dying) was actually taking place in the future, which meant that learning the alien language was giving Louise the ability to perceive time in a non-linear fashion. I assumed all this was pretty obvious, but if you missed it here (and hey, everyone has those days), then I figured you’d sure as hell get it when Costello (the other alien) tells Louise point blank that she is, in fact, seeing the future.
Despite this, the movie will absolutely refuse to tell us that Ian’s the father until almost the very last seconds, like it’s some kind of Big Reveal and not something I figured out roughly 45 minutes prior. They even, like, blur his face or give him a shadowy outline or whatever, and I’m just like, “Dudes, no. It’s Jeremy Renner. We all knows it’s Jeremy Renner. What are you even doing right now?”
C. Also, it’s gotta be said: Ian and Louise’s relationship is kinda bullshit.
Now when I say bullshit, what I really mean in this case is non-existent. Neither Louise nor Ian do anything in this entire movie that makes me think “couple” or “potential couple.” They really don’t seem to have any kind of romantic attraction or sexual chemistry between them . . . but he’s a guy, and she’s a girl, and we all know how this story goes, right?
Honestly, though, this could have worked for me. After all, I never saw this movie as an attempt to tell some kind of grand love story, and even if it was, this is the very beginning of their relationship, like, maybe Ian and Louise just fell into bed together after the aliens went away because, you know, ALIENS and intensity and extreme experiences and whatnot, and the actual romance part came later. I don’t think a smidgeon of romantic or sexual chemistry prior to that point would have gone amiss, but I could have easily forgiven it.
Except just as the aliens depart, Ian says this line: “You know what surprised me most? It wasn’t meeting them. It was meeting you.”
Nope. Uh-uh. That line is hot garbage. You do NOT get to say, ‘Baby, aliens were neat, but meeting you was a miracle’ unless you have some serious, serious foundation for that line. Cause, c’mon now. I’m sure Louise is a nice enough person and she’s obviously super intelligent and all that, but is she really more wondrous than aliens? ALIENS?! Jeremy Renner said that line, and I made an involuntary gagging sound in theater. Then I felt bad because what if this supposedly romantic bullshit was working for someone else, so I faked a few coughs and cleared my throat, pretending I was gagging for non-schmoopy dialogue related reasons, just in case I was ruining the mood for nearby audience members.
But seriously, guys, no. This is crap.
(Also, here’s to hoping against every fucking hope in the universe that this line wasn’t in Ted Chiang’s original story, because there’s a level of blasphemy I’m not actually looking to achieve.)
D. And while we’re on the subject of Louise and Ian, I absolutely take issue with some of their shitty off-screen decisions.
So, at some point after Hannah is born but before she gets sick, Louise tells Ian that their kid is going to die tragically young, and more to the point, that Louise always knew this, even before she agreed to have a baby. Now, it should be said that we don’t get to see this scene in question, so there’s very possibly context we’re missing here, like maybe Ian found out somehow, or Louise blurted the truth accidentally while drinking or something. I don’t know. But the way I took this upon watching was that Louise decided, for whatever reason, that she needed to tell Ian about the choice she made, and this seems like a blatantly horrible thing to do.
Like, I don’t mind that Louise chooses to have Hannah. (More on that in a later note.) But either you tell your partner before you have the baby so that you’re both on a level playing field when it comes to having all the facts before making such a Big Decision, or you never tell him, ever. I mean, why would you even do something like that? Of course Ian’s going to look at his daughter differently; of course he’s going to see a countdown clock hanging over her head. Whether you agree or not that Louise made the right choice, I think it’s entirely understandable that Ian thinks she made the wrong one.
That all being said.
Ian leaving Louise is understandable. But Ian also seems to entirely abandon Hannah too; as far as I can tell, he’s basically just gone, absent from several important moments, most tellingly, when Hannah dies. And that, that is unforgivable bullshit. I can’t even begin to imagine how hard it would be to know that you were going to outlive your child, but to just take off, to punish her for having a terminal illness because you can’t face it?
Fuck you, Ian. That puts you as a prime contender for Chief Asshat for 2016.
And see, it’s shit like this that keeps me from feeling the warm fuzzy optimism I keep hearing from people on Twitter who loved this movie.
E. About that: as far as I can tell, there are two primary reason that people might find Arrival to be a particularly optimistic or inspiring movie.
E1. The story ends, more or less, with several nations cooperating with one another, giving the lovely but somewhat vague implication that this cooperation will continue on into the future and help achieve world peace and unity and all that jazz.
E2. The story ends with Louise choosing to have Hannah, basically deciding that love lost is better than never having love at all.
As to E1 . . . I mean, I can absolutely see the appeal of such a message, especially with the state of the world what it is today, certainly with the horrifyingly ass-backwards direction my own country is currently headed. These are frightening times, and I wouldn’t be opposed to seeing a few more optimistic SF stories painting brighter futures myself . . .
. . . but I can’t help but feel that this doesn’t actually get the attention it deserves in the movie, like, this feels very much like a back burner moral to me. There’s an implication of future unity, I guess, but if I had to give my opinion on the thesis of the film, it’s definitely E2, not E1. This almost certainly isn’t helped by the fact that, in a way, it doesn’t feel like the characters had to work particularly hard for that unity. I mean, I really enjoy the scene where Louise talks to General Shang at the diplomatic party, like, it’s a fun scene, and strongly reminded me of Inception for some reason I can’t quite put my finger on–but at the end of the day, humanity comes together because Louise says a handful of words to a Chinese general. That’s about it. I don’t get any real sense of people from different countries finding common ground or . . . I don’t know, I’m having a really hard time articulating why this doesn’t totally work for me. I mean, none of it’s bad. I just don’t feel particularly inspired by it, either.
Now, as far as E2 goes and love lost and all . . .
I mean, I get it, and that’s a decent enough moral. It’s nice to see this moral in a non-romantic context, for once. I don’t think Louise’s choice was selfish, and I do get the idea that it’s ultimately about accepting pain and loss as an inevitable consequence of love and joy, that she’d rather have her daughter in her life for a limited time rather than entirely erasing her from existence . . . but for me, I wouldn’t call that particularly uplifting. Emotional, sure–primarily because Amy Adams acts the hell out of it, not because of anything I think is inherent in the script. But I wasn’t terribly inspired, and I wasn’t really heartbroken, and–despite how many words I’ve now put into this review–I didn’t spend that much time after the movie obsessing about it the way I do with stories that really hit me. It didn’t even make me cry, and really, it’s not like that takes all that much. You know what made me tear up the other day? Practical Magic. I was appalled at myself. (I do so love that movie, though.)
Ultimately, I’m not sure why this story isn’t doing as much for me emotionally as it is for other people. Maybe it’s because there’s some niggling ambiguity on how much of this is her choice? The very structure of the story, particularly with the Fancy Party Scene, really seems to suggest a future more determined by fate than by choice . . . like I guess Louise could have chosen to not tell General Shang his wife’s dying words, but if she had, what happens to the future she’s already seen? Does it just disappear? Does she forget it? Does she see a new future? Because the thing is, it sort of seems like everything that happens, past or present, has in a sense already happened. Her glimpses of the future seem very pre-determined to me.
Unless Louise is getting glimpses of only possible futures, of course, something I’m usually in favor of . . . but here it doesn’t quite feel right, like, Louise is experiencing her timeline in a non-linear fashion, sure, but I never got the sense that she’s seeing multiple branches of the way her timeline could play out, probably because the audience only gets to see one possible future. Unless I missed something, of course. I suppose that’s possible, but so far as I recall, it’s not like Louise sees two possible futures and picks the one with her child in it. She doesn’t appear to see different paths and forks in the road so much as How It’s Going Down.
But the word “choice” is very specifically used, and if Louise didn’t have a choice–if she was just fated to have Hannah with Ian no matter what–like, that completely wipes out E2 as a moral. Because that message is entirely dependent upon free will; it doesn’t really work to “choose love” or “choose life” if you don’t actually have choices. Considering I see E2 as the film’s driving thesis, the idea of a pre-determined fate doesn’t really work for me at all, even though it seems to make the most sense by examining the actual logical events of the story. (I feel similarly about the theory I’ve seen once or twice that Louise has Hannah to make sure she doesn’t fuck up the timeline, like it’s a necessary sacrifice for the Greater Good. You could argue that, I guess, but I don’t see a lot of actual evidence in Arrival for it, and again, wipes out E2 and replaces it with a moral that’s really not touched upon at all. I guess the whole ‘I did it because I saw it happen’ reasoning could be why Louise tells Ian the truth about Hannah, but that does feel a little weak to me too.)
F. Another interesting thing to think about: I haven’t seen very many people talking about Arrival in a pro-life context, which honestly surprises me. I’m not saying the movie’s necessarily pushing a pro-life agenda–there’s no sweeping statement, no obvious pulpit anyone’s preaching from–but I do think it’s worth at least discussing. After all, Louise’s choice is an SF version of a moral and ethical decision that many actual women face: if you learn in your first trimester that your baby will be born with a genetic defect that will ultimately prove fatal and severely shorten her life span . . . do you still have the baby? Obviously, there are multiple medical, social, and religious factors to consider, and no two cases are the exact same, but no matter what those factors are, I believe the decision is a personal one; I am unequivocally pro-choice, and I wouldn’t presume to make that choice for any woman. And really, Louise never does, either: there’s no line in Arrival that says she’s making the choice that all good people should make, no quote about how God would want her to have Hannah or that not having her would be akin to murder or anything like that.
At the same time, there is a sense, isn’t there, that the filmmakers are not just presenting Louise’s choice as the right choice for her but as the moral choice we should all aspire to? And it just seems like an easy slide to me to put that into a pro-life context, where prospective mothers are told to embrace the child that they will give birth to, despite the severity of the problems that said child will face in its potentially shortened and quite possibly painful life.
I know it’s a thorny subject that people feel passionate about, and like I said, I’m not arguing that the people behind Arrival were actually using the film as a pro-life vehicle. (And also that some of you reading this might be in favor of such a message, anyway.) But I do think it’s a reasonable interpretation of the text, and at least worthy of some discussion.
G. Finally, I just wanted to say that while I get the aliens here are playing the long game–the extremely long game–and they have, at least, a teeny measure of self-interest, like, I wish there were more alien movies where the ETs didn’t come with any specific benevolent or malevolent purpose. You know? Sometimes, I wonder if there are real aliens out there who see our movies and get tired of the lack of nuance in their portrayal. Like, I’m just picturing the alien version of Twitter, which I imagine going something like this:
Look, humans? I have a bone to pick with y’all today, so let’s just get to it: I didn’t come here for you.
You’re always giving us the angel in the house vs. the fallen woman treatment. It’s bullshit.
I’m not here to blow up your house & I’m not here to teach you a lesson, either. My people don’t even give gifts. Your traditions are weird.
In conclusion: my journey across insane amounts of space and time isn’t necessarily about YOU, asshole.
Alien Twitter runs in chronological order, BTW. Just in case you were wondering. They’ve obviously evolved a little faster than the rest of us.
Louise: “How about we just talk to them before we start throwing math problems at them?”
Louise: “Am I fired?”
Colonel Weber: “You’re better than the last guy.”
Colonel Weber: “What is that?”
Louise: “In 1770, Captain James Cook’s ship ran aground off the coast of Australia and he led a party into the country and they met the aboriginal people. One of the sailors pointed at the animals that hop around and put their babies in their pouch, and he asked what they were, and the aborigines said, “Kangaroo.” It wasn’t until later that they learned that “kangaroo” means “I don’t understand.”
Colonel Weber: “I can sell that for now.”
Colonel Weber: “But remember what happened to the aborigines: a more advanced race nearly wiped them out.”
(Colonel Weber leaves)
Ian: “It’s a good story.”
Louise: “Thanks. It’s not true. But it proves my point.”
Ian: “The next most plausible reason is that each of these cities had a hit Sheena Easton song in the 80’s, so we really don’t know why they chose those locations.”
Solidly made film. Ambitious, well acted, very pretty, and just some awesome language stuff. But I don’t find it nearly as powerful as other people seem to, at least, not on a first viewing, and I’m not feeling particularly inspired to see it again anytime soon. Certain reveals don’t work for me, and neither does the love story (such as it is), and I kind of find Ian a problematic character in general: underwritten and a total tool, in the end.
Choose love, even in the face of inevitable grief.