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Question Club: The science, aliens, and painfully timely messages of Arrival

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Plus a few more questions we had for each other

Paramount

This past weekend saw the release of Arrival, the arty, hypnotic science fiction film from Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve. Previously, Villeneuve was known for more grounded, gritty dramas: the drug-war thriller Sicario, the action-procedural Prisoners, the exhausting personal drama Incendies. Arrival constitutes new territory for him, as he looks at the present through the lens of the future, instead of the lens of history. The film, based on a short story by author Ted Chiang, follows the arrival of mysterious aliens at a series of sites around the world. At a landing site in Montana, linguistics professor Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) tries to translate the aliens’ language and open communications with them. Meanwhile, around the world, other scientific teams attempt the same task, and while world governments debate whether to share their findings or withhold them, and whether to treat the aliens as guests or enemies. Arrival is a gripping science fiction drama about alien life, the nature of language, and the threat of human extinction. But more prominently, it’s a story about how communication happens, the nature of human fear and trust, and the way language shapes thought and understanding of the world. Our reactions to it varied widely, so we rounded up three writers to consider Arrival’s big questions. Spoilers ahead.


Paramount

Did the story work for you?

Chris: The closest comparison I can make between Arrival and recent popular science fiction film is the Christopher Nolan oeuvre. Nolan and Arrival director Denis Villeneuve both wield the language of film like judo masters, using our assumptions about time and place against us to create surprising outcomes. But I often struggle to enjoy Nolan’s work, which backloads the fun parts underneath obligatory world-building and tutorials that explain how wormholes work, or why dreams are harmless, except when they kill you.

Arrival is a more understated riff on the method Nolan popularized. It conceals its tricks and saves the dense plot justification for the final act. And you know what? I loved it. By the time the big info dump came, accompanied by a twist that verges on godly intervention, I was already hooked into the characters and the stakes of global (or maybe galactic) devastation.

I know I would have been less onboard with the film had I known its exit strategy from the beginning. But that, for me, isn’t a flaw. If anything, it’s the sign of thoughtful structure. And now I’m bracing myself, because while I fell head-over-heels for the story, I recognize it’s a bit of a homespun sweater, just waiting for someone to unravel the many dangling threads.

Kaitlyn: I totally see the dangling threads in Arrival, and in a more pedantic conversation, I think they’d be fun to tug at. But I’m going to let them be for this one. That’s just my right as someone who wants to experience some movie magic in the middle of a national nightmare! It’s really hard to engineer a movie so people figure out twists at the exact moment you want them to, and for me, that was Arrival’s most impressive feat. When you’re writing a story like this one, you’re putting a lot of faith in your audience — you can’t think they’re stupid. Arrival is one of the few films I’ve seen this year that doesn’t think I’m stupid. And people love to not feel stupid! Still, it’s not a movie I would watch twice, because I think (as with Nolan’s films) probably too much of the thrill comes from the puzzles. Also, I assume on rewatch that I would not be as receptive to some of the bald-faced exploitation and cheesiness of the mother-daughter relationship.

But I also just love the idea of serving up a massive alien-invasion / global diplomatic crisis story as what basically amounts to a distraction — the real story being that of Dr. Banks’ life, her longings, her grief process, and her total aloneness as a singularly brilliant woman. You could read that as a statement on the current state of big-budget films if you wanted, or maybe a nod at how the political is actually always, every time, in all ways, personal.

Tasha: That’s true, but the personal isn’t always political, and my problem with Arrival is that I found the personal side of the film less compelling and relevant than the political side. There are so many big, heady, relevant-to-the-moment ideas here about nations needing to cooperate, and about suspicion and paranoia and mistrust in dealing with another culture. And I wanted Villeneuve to fully explore those ideas much more than I wanted to watch Dr. Banks’ emotional scenes with her daughter. The eventual payoff is powerful, in terms of how those stories fit together — there’s some real which-way-would-I-jump food for thought in the movie’s central conundrum. My reaction was the opposite of yours, guys — I would have been more onboard if I’d realized the relationship material was so relevant to the film, and now I really want to watch it again, to see those scenes as key to the story, instead of distractions from it. My first time through, I just wanted Villeneuve to skip past all the glossy, sunlit mother-daughter reveries, and get back to the thoughtful, intelligent alien story.

Maybe that’s because Arrival leads with the final moments Banks has with her daughter. We know how that story ends, so it’s distracting when Arrival keeps cutting back to it, and away from the compelling, open-ended mystery of what the aliens want. I thought Arrival did a tremendous job of building tension around its alien mysteries, but its human connection seemed mawkish and like a frustrating distraction for long enough that I had trouble accepting it even when the connections became clear. I expect it’d play better for me now that we’ve navigated the puzzle — much like Nolan’s puzzle films, which tend to be dazzling the first time through, but only really reveal their craft on subsequent viewings.


arrival-movie

What did you think about the way Arrival handles science and linguistics?

Tasha: This was Arrival’s big sticking point for me. I love the entire idea of a linguist trying to start from scratch in communicating with aliens, but I found the way she went about it endlessly questionable. Why not use pictograms or video to help connect concepts with the relative abstraction of English words on a whiteboard? Why get so excited about the aliens responding to a query with two symbols (“Those must be their names! What a breakthrough! You can stay on this job after all!”) when they’d done exactly that in the previous scene? And when those symbols just as well could have been their separate genders, or a two-symbol species name, or a sentence (“Say what, human?”) or anything else? Why jump to so many easy, lazy, potentially wrong conclusions throughout the entire process? And how do we suddenly make the leap from “Let’s guess wildly about what this symbol means” to having a full usable vocabulary? A speculative fiction movie that gets science groaningly wrong is actually less frustrating to me than one like Arrival, which puts so much slow, careful effort into almost getting it right, then has the characters constantly leaping to unsupportable conclusions in easily fixable ways.

Kaitlyn: The nitty-gritty of the linguistics in this movie did seem wildly implausible. I’m no expert, but I find it hard to believe Abbott and Costello (the names the humans rudely assign to the main aliens) really became nearly fluent in English by squinting at a whiteboard from 50 feet away. And the wild guessing the human group did at the start of the process took me out of it, too. Later on, I was more willing to believe — after two months of barely sleeping, of course Louise is going to start having hallucinations in alien languages, and basically forgetting how to speak English. Besides, if we’re going to firmly put our feet down regarding realism, I would like to know why the US government in this film bought all its computers from the prop house of Spy Kids 2.

On the plus side, I love it when movies engage with language, and the power it has to completely shape worldviews and paradigms. Linguistics is a fascinating field of study, and I haven’t seen it counted among the sciences very often in film. And after Jeremy Renner’s track record of being less-than-an-ally, it was pretty gratifying to watch him play a practitioner of a hard science, and be basically useless to the plot.

Chris: Calling Arrival a movie about linguistics is like calling Armageddon a movie about drilling. Both films need to convey just enough detail to convince viewers that these characters aren’t just experts in their field, but the only people qualified to save the day. And I think Arrival did the best it could. Tasha, you mentioned that maybe the characters could have communicated with video, or better justified why one symbol meant a particular thing, but for me, I was happy for the movie to move quickly past linguistics so it could focus on the larger issue of communication.

That’s what this film is about, after all: how hard it is to share our individual experiences, whether to foreign leaders, alien visitors, or just our co-workers. And that, for me, is why it feels so timely, so reflective of our culture’s struggle to openly and positively communicate with one another.


Image: Paramount

What did you think of the design of the aliens and the UFOs, and how both departed from modern depictions of visits from other planets?

Chris: So everybody has seen the bisected jelly-bean spacecraft floating over the verdant Pacific Northwest. It’s been front and center in the marketing, making me think we wouldn’t see the aliens, or they’d be a late reveal. Nope. Pretty early on, we get a clear look at the space octopi… and I just don’t know, y’all. The design (or maybe just the CGI execution) left me wanting. They’re so silly, so fishy, so semi-Cthulhu. Everything involving the ships feels so sleek, careful, and crisp. I guess I wasn’t ready for artistic okonomiyaki.

Tasha: Isn’t it more like artistic calamari? I didn’t have any problems with the depiction of the aliens themselves, although I did keep waiting for the reveal that what we were seeing as squid-creatures were just the hands of some vast unseen being. Sadly, that isn’t the case. But no, I thought they were compellingly graceful and inhuman, and the way Villeneuve conceals them in fog helps make them eerie and a little outside the world, so they stay alien even once we’ve spent half the film looking at them. Same with the ship, which felt like an Easter Island monolith without a face — something timeless and vast. The film’s chilly, dreamlike visuals were my favorite part of the whole project. (Couldn’t help but think of the aliens as Aunt Beast from A Wrinkle in Time, though.)

Kaitlyn: I appreciated that the spaceships were huge and weird and felt ancient, and that they did not look like the Death Star. I did not have a problem with the space octopi! I was prescribed glasses at age five, and promptly lost them on a camping trip and never replaced them, and it is barely legal for me to drive at night. So maybe I just couldn’t really see how bad the CGI was. If the aliens had been more people-like, it would have been a way scarier movie, and that’s not what I want, now or ever. In the film’s production notes, Villeneuve talks about wanting the aliens’ “presence” to make people feel like they’re standing next to a blue whale or an elephant — a really big, awe-inspiring, but not mythologically fearsome creature. I think that he mostly accomplished that, except for the weird robot-claw hands, which were scary as heck.


Paramount

What invites the comparisons between Arrival and Contact? How are these films different from most science fiction blockbusters?

Chris: Okay, here’s why I love both these movies, and why I feel both are a counter to the bulk of popular science fiction: they dodge traditional good-and-evil binaries, they skip mindless action setpieces with copious collateral damage, and most importantly, they have something to say. These aren’t merely films about the “what if” of alien contact; they’re films with messages that can serve us today.

In that way, Arrival feels like a full-throated rebuttal to superhero cinema, which has become a sustainable plot-farmer, planting seeds, growing plotlines, and partaking in individual movie plots just enough to survive. Mostly, superhero movies right now are using their run time to grow more characters into future franchises. Arrival is about one woman’s personal journey, and when the film ends, this woman and the audience, can walk out of the theater having learned from a complete, standalone experience.

Kaitlyn: Contact came out when I was four :(

Tasha: Man. Kids these days! The Contact comparisons are apt for a lot of reasons: the female-scientist protagonist with an amiable but judgmental male foil who doesn’t forward the plot much, but does provide a sounding board. The “What do the aliens want” mystery, and the tension between government distrust and open scientific curiosity about the universe. The personal trauma and family death driving the woman at the center of the story. The sabotage subplot, and the moment where the protagonist has to go meet the aliens alone. The themes of communication and outreach as a buffer against loneliness and isolation. And finally, the tone of solemnity and a subtle sort of human uplift, a sense of positivity and futurism that can reach past the limitations of fear and knee-jerk anger. The two films have a lot in common.

And they have more in common when you look at them against the backdrop of those other science fiction films you mentioned, the ones that turn aliens into a generic overwhelming threat and excuse for blow-em-up action (like Independence Day: Resurgence), or the films that mostly use aliens as a colorful backdrop to make a universe more diverse (like the Star Trek and Star Wars films), or the ones that leave out aliens altogether to focus on human endeavor and human failings. A lot of science fiction films are about external threats — the ones we might encounter in space, or from space. Others are really about the internal conflicts we’re going to carry into the future, whether it’s in space or on Earth. Arrival is a film about figuring out, carefully and thoughtfully, whether internal or external threats are more dangerous to us as a species.


Paramount

Dr. Banks has to choose between living the life she’s foreseen and making changes. Would you make the choice she did?

Tasha: I don’t think I would, largely because I can’t see myself entering a relationship with a guy who I knew would not be able to handle the truth, and who I couldn’t talk to about my choices either up front — because he wouldn’t cooperate — or afterward, because he’d leave me. I understand Dr. Banks’ choice to go on with having the child she remembers, but it seems like she has to deceive her husband a bit to make it happen, and she isn’t just letting herself in for grief with that choice, she’s making a painful choice for him and their future child as well. I’d probably go with a different relationship, and end up with a different daughter as a result, and love that one, too. But the strength of Arrival is that you can see why Banks made the decision she made, even if you wouldn’t have gone in the same direction.

Kaitlyn: Her choice made sense to me up until the moment when Jeremy Renner’s character obliviously asks her if she’s ready to have a kid, and she’s like “Yes, for sure” with swoony eyes. Seeing that specific moment play out with her knowing what was going to happen, and not telling him then, made her look like a sociopath. But even knowing your future wouldn’t necessarily make you feel like you have the power to change it. And it wasn’t clear to me whether Dr. Banks knew the future at all times, or only when using the heptapods’ language. When she foresees herself talking to the Chinese general at some kind of ritzy gala in her honor, the future version of herself doesn’t remember calling him in the past. So I’m not convinced you’re supposed to think she has a little notebook of Things I Have Foretold Will Happen To Me. It could be she only catches glimpses once in a while, and has a hard time differentiating them from dreams. Who knows! On behalf of Jeremy Renner (words I never thought I would say), I hope so.

Chris: Yeah, I naïvely saw her decision as binary. She either fulfills the future that saves the world, every emotionally painful step of it, or the world ends. So it felt a bit like a non-choice. Now I feel silly.


Paramount

Arrival tries to teach us about humanity, about communication and cooperation and trust. Did you find those messages compelling?

Kaitlyn: I saw Arrival at a press screening the night before the election, which my friend Claire now calls “bad Christmas Eve.” Watching Arrival made me thrilled by the possibility of America’s first woman president, who would not only be a symbolic icon, but also a massively talented diplomat with years of experience. But I was also terrified of the possibility of a president who has proven his behavior is dictated by moods, which are dictated by threats to his ego. It was an emotional roller coaster, to say the least. I don’t think Arrival is saying anything particularly complex by reminding us that people should work together and communicate and keep open minds about each other, but it is interesting how starkly it contrasts with blockbusters that still villainize foreign countries, or uniquely valorize America. Even in The Martian, Americans have to more or less trick the Chinese government into helping them out.

Arrival is a message movie that’s ostensibly about global cooperation, but it actually hinges on the good grace and intelligence of one woman. Since she’s such an unassuming presence, you can read her character as an argument that most people are basically good. Looking back at it after the election, it’s hard to believe in that argument. Arrival now feels like an overly optimistic story about America’s colossal missed opportunity.

Tasha: I had a similar experience, watching the film and thinking about the election in progress, and the huge difference between the way a Clinton White House would handle aliens, and the way a Trump White House would react. I sincerely hope if aliens ever do come visit us, they pick a period where we don’t have a provably xenophobic, belligerent, profit-driven egomaniac in office. (Though if they do show up while he’s president, or if they arrived long ago and the government’s been keeping it a secret and now has to brief him about it, I look forward to him spilling the beans pretty quickly. Trump’s impulse control is so poor, I expect he’ll be tweeting nasty stuff about the aliens at 3AM pretty early on.) Arrival comes with a big, gentle message about trusting other people even if we don’t understand them, and allowing ourselves to be vulnerable even if it feels unsafe. Right now, to me, that feels like naïve wishful thinking, a kind of “Love is the fifth element!” motto-message that doesn’t have much to do with current reality.

Chris: Arrival tells the story of one woman who choose a life of grief to save the world. I find her so painfully relatable. As I get older, the emotional struggle of life — the one I couldn’t see when I was a child — has revealed itself. Friends and family die. Unexpected tragedies interrupt banal work weeks. To live and to love is to court inevitable grief, and we make the choice to move on. I’ve attended many funerals over the past few years, and I thought about each of them on the drive home from my screening. I don’t have the advantage of knowing my future, but I do have the memory of my past. I know the pain that comes with emotional investment, and it does not hobble me, or at least I try my best not to let it. I found Arrival’s bigger themes of communication and trust compelling. But what will stick with me is its defense of choosing life in the face of profound grief.