I’ve been meaning to do a full piece on Arrival but it waited until I actually had a request in the comments. It’s nice to see evidence that people are reading the blog, and I’d like to have more interactivity with the readership, so I went back and viewed it over again so I could come up with a subject for an essay (since most of my reviews are really more film-crit essays).
A while back I wrote a series of posts about what it is people get from watching movies (or consuming story in any medium for that matter). Most films operate on a blend of levels, but they usually dominate in one or the other. Much has been made lately about cerebral filmmaking being an endangered species because of the rise of superhero movies and having to appeal to the global lowest-common-denominator. Despite that, a few recent sci-fi films have been held up as “smart”. These are things like Interstellar, The Martian, and Arrival.
All three of these films share some common traits. They all have leads who represent academics who ‘science’ (used as a verb in The martian) the sh*t out of stuff. In some ways you can look at these as recruitment films for STEM education. But the idea of smart people solving big problems goes way back to things like Forbidden Planet as it moved through Star Trek and 2001.
The idea is that discovering something new to expand our understanding of our place in the universe is inherently awe-inspiring and valuable. I feel, culturally, that this is a minority opinion. I feel that most people are concerned with their own lot in life, their job, their level of comfort, their social life (increasingly online), and their only interest in the macro is their participation in polarized politics, fueled by the jingoism and fake-news.
So you can see films like these as intelligentsia rebelling against the wave of anti-intellectualism. At the same time, there’s a fundamental difference in stories that revolve around intellectual inquiry vs. character and emotion. You could say, demographically, that people who like nerdy movies, nerds themselves, tend to be wired differently. The whole autism spectrum.
Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner are about as far from the autism spectrum as one can imagine, but if you see various science programs on cable, the talking heads there are all very clearly nerds. I’m not here to bash nerds, as I am definitely one of them. But it’s to show that films that appeal to nerds do so because they tickle the left brain.
Another genre of film besides sci-fi that does this is mystery or police procedurals. They are effectively the process of watching someone or a team unravel a mystery. As the spectator, you try to figure things out in advance of the plot. It feels like mental exercise. The central question of whodunnit (or how dunnit) is just not as sophisticated as the philosophical underpinnings of cerebral sci-fi, which is why this genre has more appeal, but it’s still on the left-brain side of things.
The sacrificial lamb of cerebral entertainment is in the area of character. In the interest of making a point, characters are a means to an end. They spend most of their time delivering long speeches of exposition. In Arrival, Amy Adams goes as far as stepping up to the whiteboard to explain concepts in a way that really starts to feel like watching a documentary. A few bits of Interstellar also come across that way, made worse by virtue of the fact that the crew of that mission probably already knew most of the concepts, so the speeches were there purely for the sake of the audience.
Arrival is composed mostly of the procedural aspects of solving the riddle of the alien language and averting war. I found this aspect of the film to ultimately be dull and boring, similar to being in a science class. It reminded me of a period in my life when I used to go to the bookstore and read through the Making of Middle Earth series that was being published in dribs and drabs by Christopher Tolkien. I didn’t really understand everything that Tolkien’s son was trying to explain about the evolution of these fictional languages and the surrounding back-story, but I kind of “felt smart” by leafing through the pages.
What Arrival does do to compensate is establish a creepy/moody atmosphere. This is mostly due to the score. It’s the score that is ultimately the most memorable part of the film, and not all of it, but the sections meant to represent the heptapods themselves.
Back in the 70s Jimmy Page worked on a soundtrack for a film called Lucifer Rising. It was an infamous project because the soundtrack was never used and there was a lot of finger-pointing. But the soundtrack eventually saw the light of day in bootlegs and more recently Page self-published it. I was always fascinated with the gloomy and mysterious sounds in the bootleg. The heptapod theme is similar, but it represents ultimately the fear of the unknown. There hasn’t been a track this innovative since the use of strings in The Dark Knight.
Just to back up again, the film tries to stand on three pillars, the “big idea” of our perception of time and how it relates to language, the creepy atmospherics, and the more conventional drama framing. If you can see where I’m heading here, the drama is the weak leg on this stool. This would be true of any cerebral movie, but it’s made worse here in a few ways that I hope I can properly articulate.
Time and non-linearity is a common theme for filmmakers because it’s something filmmakers themselves deal with. They construct meaning out of pieces of film that were shot out-of-sequence to fool the eye into thinking it’s sequential. Whenever you write, you know where your characters begin and where they end. It gives you more of a holistic attitude about reality than merely thinking in the now. When a film asks us to question our perception of time, what it’s really trying to do is having us step back and sort of reflect on our lives, how all of the decisions we made brought us to this point, what would have happened had we taken this or that pathway, etc… Story is nothing but characters making a series of decisions over time, like playing a videogame, and then so is life. Is there actual free-will to life or not? If you could see the future, could you cange it? Would you? Everything from Groundhog Day to Back to the Future to The Terminator has wrestled with these sorts of questions. Even La La Land explores this at the end by falling into a fantasy sequence where the characters played through the “game” making all the right moves to stay together.
Arrival chose to frame this around a moral question. Should you bring a child into the world if you knew she was going to die early due to some rare incurable disease? I think most would answer no. The film seems to suggest that the “right” answer is yes. The rationalization it seems to give is something along the lines that it is best to embrace impermanence. Even one of the heptapods dies (presumably of natural causes) over the course of the film, clearly meant to tie their grief to our lead’s future grief. As we now have the ability to run an assortment of genetic tests on embryos, the idea of whether or not to carry a baby to term that has a serious genetic defect already places mothers in that situation. In this case, though, the question is rolled back to the moment of conception.
It seems to be more important for the film to simply ask the question than to justify the characters’ ultimate decision. It also doesn’t quite answer the free-will question of whether she ever really had a choice in the matter, even though she actually asks Renner about changing the future in the abstract. We never really know whether she ever could make a different decision. The causality paradoxes inherent in all time-travel stories are therefore present here.
The paradoxes reach a peak in the climax of the film in how Adams obtains hidden information about the Chinese general, seemingly out of nowhere. The central premise of learning an exotic language leading to brain-rewiring and superhuman ability * itself is again, merely a device in order to make you think about time in a new way.
But for all the attempts to ground the story in something that feels truly real and not pulpy, the film’s reliance on these plot contrivances reminds you that you are only seeing a movie.
When a cerebral movie tries to inject heart, usually it falls flat. That is true here as well. The film is so concerned with high-brow topics that it really can’t switch gears into maudlin territory without it being jarring and phoney.
Stylistically speaking, there is a huge problem with the mother-daughter sequences. Since these are mostly rendered as hallucanatory flash-forwards, they are rendered in a sort of Madison Avenue sunset glaze that can’t help but remind you of the manipulative visuals of the ads drug companies litter television with nowadays.
You know, where families are walking through the park, skipping stones, playing frisbee, all while the voiceover is having to list out all of the scary side-effects. Because the child is seen only in little bits and pieces, she too is only a device. Like the mom in Guardians of the Galaxy, the death early in the film feels manipulative for the sake of being manipulative, not organic. I mean, death-bed scenes in hospitals are a horrible cliche’, let’s face it.
A much more severe strutural problem involves the relationship between Renner and Adams. In order to hold onto the mystery of the child’s paternity, their relationship is rendered totally platonic. There is (to my eyes at least) no spark of actual romance between the two, only a sort of trench-warfare bonding. This is, again, a case of the need of the plot trumping plausible characterization. Only in the last couple minutes of the film do the two of them sort of have this obligatory embrace, which seems to come out of nowhere in order to facilitate Renner being the necessary sperm-donor.
If it seems like I’m being particularly touchy about this topic, you’re right, I am. I did not feel the romance in La La Land was particularly natural either. I am very picky about how romance is portrayed in films. I find the idea of men and women sort of going through the motions of relationships without really falling in love to be depressing. I want to see the real deal, not business-like partnerships. Just as the film is very cerebral, the romance itself felt like a “logical” pairing rather than two people falling in love. This right up to Renner sort of offering a stomach-churning business proposal to her “You want to make a baby?” Maybe that’s what nerds do in the real world, but it leaves me cold.
Just to beat a dead horse here, how many of you have ever seen two people in love in a public place? A couple on a park-bench or in the subway exchanging public displays of affection? I know what that looks like, and that’s what I expect to see in any on-screen romance. It may seem ridiculous to bring this up, but one of the most convincing portrayals of a woman in love was in Get Smart. A big reason why Barbara Feldon developed such a fanbase was she was told from the start of the show to portray herself as being madly in love with Maxwell Smart. In just about every scene, Feldon is giving Smart the goo-goo eyes.
I never really paid attention to this until recently, and now I look at this as sort of the gold-standard, even though it was almost always a one-way expression on her part (at the end of the show, like in I Dream of Jeannie, the two tied the knot).
Similarly, in the flash-forward sequences, in order to “hide” Renner, they just make the couple have a divorce. While the in-story reason for the divorce is that he finds out she knew the kid was going to die, got pissed off, and left, because the relationship itself lacked heat, you could just as well feel that the pairing wasn’t going to last anyway. So not only has she doubled-down on having a kid doomed to die an early death, she also knew that her marriage was also doomed. This seriously clashes with the faux-Disney Prince Charming embrace at the end, and seems to send a rather cynical message that all aspects of human bonding are doomed to be rather short-lived so you might as well accept it and do it anyway. Happily ever after, this ain’t.
In fact, the film itself seems to represent a lot of social isolation. Adams doesn’t seem to have much of a social life at the start. She lives in a big airy cottage with huge windows. She seems kind of a loner, talking with her mom on the phone.
There’s scenes of her walking through the empty college just kind of looking around as if it’s an apocalyptic wasteland.
The teaming masses of the ignorant rioting in the streets never seem to reach the camera. The worst you get is a fender-bender in the parking lot of the college. Otherwise the students sort of calmly stream out and that’s that.
I don’t know Denis Villeneuve that much but many filmmakers ARE introverted cerebral loners, and one can’t help but wonder whether these images of being alone in empty spaces were put in there because of his own independent sensibilities. When you factor in how “false” the sentimental scenes feel, it suggests that he is, indeed, an introverted nerd and he doesn’t totally understand the true nature of personal connections. I know some will disagree with me, but it takes more than gauzy closeups of kissing babies to deliver a feeling. You can get all of the surface details right and it can still ring as hollow, as the drug commercials show.
So I think the leg of characters is very weak and the stool ultimately falls over because of it. That doesn’t mean the film isn’t worth seeing. It is. It’s just that as a piece of entertainment it feels incomplete. What you get are ideas to ponder and atmospherics to remember but the characters feel only like pawns in service of the greater theme.
If there’s any escape-hatch for this, one could interpret the cold or stoic nature of the characters as representing a sort of cultural critique of where we are in history. Apocalyptic cinema has been going strong now for, I dunno, at least as far back as 911. There are news stories talking about how the entire world is entering depression. I think I’m noting a real lack of genuine warmth and feeling in films these days which may be an outgrowth of this phenomenon. Old movies feel positively naive in their optimism and communalism compared to today where characters are mopey, shallow, hedonistic, or clown-like. At some point the depressing aspects of the world we live in feed back into our entertainment as the people who make our entertainment are living and being influenced by the world around us.
Arrival seems to present a first-world that is suffering from a complete lack of purpose, a blankness or ennui. For some reason, the lyrics from this Carpenter Song comes to mind:
What I’ve got they used to call the blues
Nothin’ is really wrong
Feelin’ like I don’t belong
Some kind of lonely clown
Rainy Days and Mondays always get me down.
The aliens are there to supposedly solve this problem, ex deus machina style, but the flash-forwards still don’t seem to offer much emotional comfort outside of having avoided armageddon. Adams’ character is left divorced and with a book on heptapods dedicated in her dead child’s honor. For a film that seems to want us to appreciate the moment, it also suggests that joy exists in only tiny pockets of memory, whether it’s of an event that has taken place or has yet to take place, and that all the rest of our lives is to be spent wandering around alone navel-gazing. I would think those who are more extroverted, who spend more time hanging out with friends and famlily, would find it harder to relate to this theme, but I’m embarassed to admit how close that hits home. That’s why this film ultimately upsets me the way it does.
- It’s also notable that nobody else who has been decoding the language, including Renner, seems to have picked up any clairvoyant ability. Adams is “the chosen-one”.