Guess Who’s Coming for Dinner
So our copy of Arrival finally came in to the library over the weekend. This was actually one of the few movies this year I was excited to see. Unfortunately, circumstance saw that I wasn’t around when it passed through theatres so I was left waiting for rentals before I could enjoy it.
And there is something for the theatre experience. I had always dismissed people’s preference for the cinema as being delusional. However, whether it was through a worn disk or ailing DVD player, the audio quality was a bit lacking. We missed a good five minutes of the film trying to get a functional volume that didn’t burst our eardrums anytime an aircraft entered the scene (which is quite frequent) but still allowed us to hear the dialogue.
Granted, no one wants to read a review of someone complaining about their substandard view conditions. Or, maybe they do. I don’t know, I haven’t polled anyone about it. I’m assuming they don’t so I’ll just leave off with going to the cinema is definitely better even if it is crazy more expensive. But I’m not here to review Arrival either. At least, not really. Since I’m so late to this discussion, just throwing my opinions on the matter is probably redundant by now.
So I’ll just give a broad strokes review: I enjoyed it. I didn’t enjoy the time paradox. That’s not how language actually works. Conceit is better than Interstellar’s magic space library.
That should summarize the salient points.
No, there’s a different aspect of Arrival that I really want to discuss.
Awhile ago I wrote a little piece on racism in fantasy. It wasn’t my best argued piece, largely because it was just for the blog and beyond getting a first draft up, I wasn’t going to wed myself to the argument to tighten it further. Suffice to say, it’s a very common pitfall for creators to lean heavily on historical or cultural precepts when making new fantasy and science fiction races. This can, inadvertently, introduce biases, prejudices or stereotypes that were unintended. This can lead to a very flat depiction of a fantasy race wherein all members behave and act as one concept thus reinforcing preconceived notions that “all people are like X.” Wherein X is the original inspiration for the race but oftentimes is a rather unflattering depiction of a real world culture.
For a very simple shorthand, take a look at the modern depiction of elves. What do you imagine? Isn’t it a drunk, hairy midget who speaks like a Scotsman? I’d would be shocked if it was this:
Here we have the potato-headed Alviss coming to Thor to claim his daughter as his wife. Thor, conversing with the dwarf, argues he was made unaware of such an arrangement and will hand his daughter over if the dwarf is able to answer his questions. The dwarf is exhaustive in his reply, speaking with Thor until the morning sun rises and turns him to stone.
Sound familiar? It’s the concept Tolkien used in the Hobbit for defeating the trolls. Tolkien pulled heavily on older mythology and the Poetic Edda in particular for crafting his world. He laid the groundwork for most of our modern tropes.
But outside of being short, Alviss is hardly what you’d first imagine for a dwarf. Not to mention that Tolkien did exhaustive work to present his races in as rounded a manner as he could. I have little beef with Tolkien’s representation outside of it simply being copied ad infinitum since its creation. Hell, the Hobbit had so many dwarves in it that it would be hard to draw a single stereotype of them since they were presented with such a wide spectrum of behaviour.
Anyway, I don’t want to rehash the old argument because my driving point was that the issue with modern races is that instead of shooting for Tolkien’s creativity and diversity, we were getting endless derivatives that were reducing these concepts down to shallow stereotypes. Why not have new species and races that are formed and expanded beyond simple conceits and are informed by their own culture, biology and history into something wholly new, different and challenging?
Thus, we come full circle to Arrival.
Arrival is everything I want in a fantastical race. Not only are the aliens weird but their weirdness is a pivotal crux to the philosophy and themes in the piece. It’s the driving portion of the conflict and it’s really well done.
Needless to say, I’m going into spoiler territory so if you care… why are you reading one of my reviews again?
Anyway, Arrival does a fantastic job of enveloping its audience in confusion and uncertainty. Partly this is the editing and format through which the movie is presented. Sequences are played out of chronological order but, seemingly, in a benign way. I don’t wish to spend too much time discussing the nonlinear time elements. I hate time paradoxes and, sadly, Arrival introduces them with almost maniacal glee at the climax of its action which, instead of being the highlight for me, was the film’s lowest point. I’ve actually studied language and perception so the idea that thinking in the alien’s language suddenly grants super powers is a bit lame. I was willing to accept the conceit – I mean, you always have to accept some outlandish components of genre pieces – but that Amy Adam’s magic powers came even before she fully learned the language meant that their own explanation wasn’t internally consistent in the piece.
Regardless, I don’t want to discuss that. The whole circular time element is only good for its visualization within the written language of the cephalopods. Which ties back to my whole argument of designing alien cultures that are incredibly alien to what we know.
And everything about the cephalopods is meant to be alienating. It feeds into the overall disorientation of the piece and it’s done with such expertise that I couldn’t help but fall in love. I mean, the first appearance of the alien’s vessel – their black kidney bean shaped structure passingly reminiscent of the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey – is probably the most underwhelming aspect of the film. The smooth black curved contours were likely meant to reveal as little as possible for what was to come next and, potentially, lull the audience into a brief sense of respite.
If that is the case, then it does a good job since the first meeting with the aliens is pretty nerve-wracking. I absolutely loved how Arrival puts you on edge even though most of the film is, essentially, going through the daily drudgery of what would occur should we actually make first contact with an alien species. That is it say, it’s focused almost entirely on diplomatic efforts with a high priority placed on creating a line of communication than adhering to any action beats. In fact, the only action beat in the whole film seems really out of place.
However, there’s nothing more delightfully unsettling than that first scene where they board the cephalopod ship and enter the partitioned room. Watching the glass fill with gas as two dark shapes drift down to hover like enormous disembodied hands before the minuscule contact team and their small, caged budgie is sheer visual brilliance.
And, ultimately, we don’t get to see much into the cephalopod culture over the course of the movie. There’s some excellent visual flair in rendering the language as some sort of mutable ink pattern, whose beginning and ending is so indecipherable that their program for creating responses has to present the cobbled lexicon together in multiple configurations during the course of a conversation. But even as we start to understand what little we can between the interactions of the lead characters and the alien visitors (including humanizing them by giving the two characters names of famous comedians), the movie throws us further off kilter when Amy Adam’s is brought aboard their vessel without the standard protective bio-suits near the film’s culmination.
We get a peek behind the curtain and we discover things are even weirder than the little we’d grown accustomed. The ground of the alien’s craft is actually some peculiar white ridged surface that looks more like frozen soundwaves. We’re introduced to an even more monstrous cephalopod that looks stranger than the other two we’ve met and the film itself takes on a grainy, dream-like quality for the exchange. Then, Amy Adams is dropped off and, instead of the ships taking to the sky, they just sort of roll over and vanish in a cloud of disembodied smoke.
It’s such a well conceived depiction of an alien that shares nothing in common with humans and I simply love how their own baffling biology is considered from their culture (language) to their technology (ship propulsion). Even better, you never actually see any terminals or anything in the ship since the aliens don’t have any appendages remotely similar to hands.
It is this kind of detail and consideration that makes you intrigued and wanting to learn more. It also works well for convening the mood and atmosphere of the story. Arrival addresses all my standard criticisms and I wholly recommend it for such an outstanding presentation of the power of science fiction imagining and just how it can be used to promote atmosphere and philosophy without falling back on tired and tried tropes and stereotypes.
Unless, of course, we want to argue that they were Lovecraftian horrors. But given the overall lack of destruction of Earth, I’m willing to let the antediluvian pelagic references to slid this time.