If You Had It to Do Over Again...Would You Have an Inkling?
Science fiction is always a problematic genre, dramatically. Thesis overwhelms character. And character buries the lead. Some of the best science-fiction has been melodramatically inert, its characters cut from templates—my favorite movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey, has professional people, but one can't see much personality. Events are too big for traits beyond hubris to penetrate. When personality plays into the scenario—think Interstellar—it undercuts the ideas and the scale, making the grand scale of ideas a mere backdrop for the problems of the two little people in a crazy multiverse.
Science fiction asks the Big What if? And perhaps we've gotten to the saturation point where the concept of alien visitation has gotten old-hat since the time Klaatu visited and turned out the lights.
And it shouldn't. Alien arrival—dare we say "immigration?"—would be a global game-changer, causing both societies and sects to do major pivoting in their by-laws and arcana, causing re-writes and "spins" in order to maintain their global and universal pecking orders. It was ever thus.
Arrival has no room for such speculation—the world just freaks out like they would on Independence Day, from fender-benders in parking lots to international posturing and saber-rattling without benefit of resets. Twelve crescent-shaped objects appear hovering over various parts of the planet, the only thing they have in common (as one "expert" opines) is that Sheena Easton had a #1 hit there in 1981.* The press speculates idly, trying to fill air-time while the respective governments evacuate and cordone off the touchdown sites. They ask and reverberate the same questions the populace has: why are they here?; why now?; Are they here for peaceful or harmful purposes?; if it's The Rapture, what should I wear?
The government—all the governments—ask the same questions. But, first they have to figure out how to communicate with The Visitors (if they're merely Visiting) without the benefit of them understanding English, providing a Universal Translator, Absorbascon, or music-activated light-show.** The colonel in charge of solving the problem, Col. Weber (Forest Whittaker) seeks out linguistics professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams) to apply her skills to try and decode the guttural rumbles the arrivers emit.
We've already spent some time with Dr. Banks—a prologue begins the movie with a narrated slice-of-life montage straight out of Terence Mallick of Banks as seen through the life (and death) of her daughter. She speaks over it:
"I used to think this was the beginning of your story. Memory is a strange thing. We are so bound by time, by its order. I remember moments in the middle. And this was the end. But, now I'm not so sure in beginnings and endings. There are moments that are beyond your life. Like the moment "they" arrived.
That narration had me checking the IMDB credits to see if it was Mallick or Christopher Nolan who was directing the movie. But, no, it's Denis Villeneuve (who directed Incendies, Prisoners, and Sicario).
Banks first gets an inkling of events when she shows up to teach her class and only a handful have shown up—and it isn't even after homecoming. Their cell-phones start beeping, with alerts, texts, and (I'm sure) questionable Facebook posts. Banks turns on the class monitor to the TV and stares blankly at what she sees. Then, the evacuation alarm goes off. Class dismissed.
Before long, Whittaker's colonel is in her office, playing a recording of the E.T. utterances, and after some initial reluctance—on both their parts—she's whisked away to Montana to one of the ground zero's where the slightly-scalloped ships are hovering 30 feet above the ground. Ferried with her is Dr. Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), who's been reading up on Banks, allowing light-hearted verbal sparring about the best approach to talking to the aliens.
"The cornerstone of civilization isn't language—it's science," he opines. "How about we talk to them before throwing math problems at them?" she counters.
The control center in Montana, where they're flown to is an amalgamation of boots on the ground and ghosts in the machine—while the troops are providing security and infrastructure, there are banks of computers analyzing and skyping other countries reporting their progress—or lack of it. With all that intel, there's an NSA agent, Halpen (Michael Stuhlbarg), who's acting as filter for both communication and hindrance.
The highlights of the film are, of course, the contact scenes, where Donnelly and Banks meet and greet the aliens and Villenueve creates an curious milieu for these. There is an interesting and metaphorical gravity re-orientation, and the specialists meet the "heptapods" (as they're soon labeled, although, for personal reasons, I prefer the term Krakenators)—creatures that appear like elephant-hided octopi—in an inconvenient, but dramatically-stylized movie screen-apertured tank. Most of the creativity and a fair share of the budget go into these scenes, and the efforts to interpret and correspond are editorially compressed to spare us the intricacies and timeline of establishing common-ground. We get the highlights, but no squabbling over syntax or masculine/feminine articles.
It is Banks who makes the breakthroughs, and for whom the heptapods have the most trust—she is, after all, the first one who takes off the alarming enviro-suits to give the "heps" a good look at the fragile creatures we actually are. And more importantly, she does it not through much words and language as action, which given the species is a much more reliable presentation of intent.
Actions speak louder than linguistics, and the actions of the humans world-wide put any sort of understanding—among humans or heptapods—in jeopardy. It all hinges on Banks, who, when things come to crisis, comes up with a unique little talent that comes out of nowhere (the line from Captain America: Civil War came to mind: "Okay, anybody on our side hiding any shocking and fantastic abilities they'd like to disclose? I'm open to suggestions.") and for which there has been no...inkling...previously, and which seems really convenient.
Now, don't get all curious about that ability—don't jump to some conclusion that it has anything to do with the aliens, that Amy Adams is a secret heptapod, or they're the souls of lost loved ones, or anything like that. The twist isn't that clever...or relevant. It's merely a lucky happenstance that she's chosen to be on this team—at least lucky for the writers who might've come up with it just to get out of a third-act jam. That there is nothing that presages it makes it feel lazy...and also makes you wonder why, previously, everybody has been working so hard, as well as negating all sorts of things along the thread of the movie.
|"Look! I could be in another Spielberg movie! (I was in Catch Me if You Can, remember? No?)"|
The problem is not that Arrival has an unreliable narrator, so much as it has an unreliable narrative. It keeps that important piece of information from us—a sort of weak Shyamalayan-twist that has nothing to do with the circumstances of the movie's draw, and keeps the movie from feeling like an integrated whole. Here, the consequences of a world-changing event doesn't change much in the movie's sphere, at least in the intentions of the movie-makers. It's just a hook, which could have been accomplished by any means, even trivial, rather than cosmic. In which case, it's a bit of a cheat: Arrival doesn't inspire a sense of wonder, so much as a wonder why.
** Don't get me started on Google Translate®.