The medium, the message
Denis Villeneuve's Arrival is an oddity of a major Hollywood production: a science fiction film boasting the latest special effects where the effects are at best incidental, a pooling together of men and material resources intent on promoting spiritual (immaterial?) and temporal transcendence to its audience.
The first half is arguably the better part: we're sketched the life of linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) who's haunted by memories of a beloved daughter taken by cancer. The tragedy looms over her decision to accept an assignment with theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) translating the language of freshly arrived aliens. Unspoken assumption: that having lost a precious life Louise seeks to redeem or refresh herself by seeking out other lives no matter how strange and making contact, perhaps making new friends.
The puzzle represented by the aliens--a pair of heptapods (Ian dubs them 'Abbott' and 'Costello') that look as if they had slithered off a Hokusai woodprint--is suggestive: their written language is so complex that removing a symbol completely changes the meaning of the sentence (which incidentally has no beginning and no end, as suggested by the sentence's circular form). Unlike most recent science fiction megaproductions here the emphasis is on communication--on the need to keep lines open as long and continuously as possible, the need to keep minds as clear of emotion and hasty judgment as possible. The ultimate reward or so we're told is a clarity that can pierce through the veils of time and space.
Meantime there's this tiresome little subplot of a Chinese general (funny how considering current events the filmmakers seem to have gotten the nationality of the belligerent panic-stricken leader wrong) suffering from a bad case of xenophobia, with hand on the nuclear trigger. O I suppose we need a third-act melodrama to punch things up a bit; HAL 9000 in Kubrick's otherwise somberly paced 2001: A Space Odyssey was easily that epic's dramatic high point, even if narrative storytelling itself suffered from a diminished status in that film. It's perhaps more realistic to allow that humans don't always react rationally though I thought (even if I didn't much like the film) Robert Zemeckis' Contact had a smarter take on the subject, skewering the silliness of our response to momentous events (come to think of it this entire film--not to mention Villeneuve's filmography from what I've seen to date--could benefit from a generous helping of Zemeckis' brand of skepticism).
The final passage gives us a twist based on a clever sleight-of-hand Ted Chiang slips into his short story, more easily done (I imagine) on the big screen though I did end up with a few unanswered questions (skip the rest of this and the next paragraph if you plan to see the film!): 1) Understand the sentiment that made her agree to marriage and a baby, but shouldn't she have told Ian immediately after he proposed instead of waiting a few years? Maybe it's this withholding of crucial information and the resulting sense of betrayal that drove him to leave her. 2) If the aliens knew that they needed our help three thousand years in the future couldn't they have used some of those years, maybe even a few centuries, to figure the best way to present their dilemma to us humans without causing undue panic?
All that said (and I have to admit it's mostly minor issues) the film does preserve the story's larger point: that communication is key with language its primary medium, and that language and the concepts embedded within can help shape our perceptions. Chiang (though I'm not sure he reads the man) seems to have taken inspiration from Olaf Stapledon's Starmaker--where the creator's apparent purpose in creating the universe is the cold artistic appreciation of said universe, including the disproportionate suffering of its inhabitants. Stapledon's is the ultimate expression of this idea, in a massive prose poem the sheer scope of which causes lesser epics (science fiction or otherwise) to shrivel away; Chiang's is a version of Stapledon's grand scheme, rendered on a more human scale.
If I have a problem with this otherwise thoughtfully wrought film it's this: Villeneuve doesn't quite have the necessary poetry to allow Chiang's ideas to soar. Perhaps his most impressive single moment--the huge alien ship floating over the wide Montana grassland--benefits from a shot of clouds streaming down a nearby mountain range, an image that unfortunately Olivier Assayas had already done and in my opinion done better in his 2015 Clouds of Sils Maria. The ships themselves are obviously meant to generate a sense of awe like the monoliths in 2001, though Kubrick's inscrutable Hershey bars have a more powerfully mindbending presence. I mean, featureless black slabs in the middle of prehistoric Africa? Standing at the bottom of a vast freshly uncovered pit, on the surface of the moon? You want to hoot and howl and stamp your feet, stretch your hairy (or gloved) hand out and touch the edifice's impossible surface--make sure for yourself that it's really there.
Villeneuve's digitally conceived ships (Kubrick used gargantuan sets, and when necessary elaborate miniatures) tend to inspire less impressive associations: oversized tiddlywinks or Alka-Seltzer tablets, maybe giant cast-iron pot covers; the only other interesting visual conceit in the picture is the tunnel leading deep into the ship (which borrows a simple but still jawdropping coup de theatre moment from of all things Royal Wedding). I'm all for intelligent science fiction, and SF involving alien contact with special emphasis on communications is as interesting and dramatically suspenseful a subject as anything else (Close Encounters of the Third Kind* anyone?) but this is a visual not just textual medium (Solaris anyone? Stalker?**); after watching I still felt a great need to feed my visually undernourished eyes.
*(Which proposes the interesting idea that music may be a more productive medium for interspecies communication)
**(The former (based on Stanislaw Lem's novel) suggests a difference so great any attempt is futile; the latter (based on the Strugatsky Brothers' short book) suggests that the aliens' motives might be so, well, alien (the title refers to ants wandering into and trying to make sense of the artifacts found in a picnic spread) to even attempt communication is unthinkable)
First published in Businessworld 2.16.17