Arrival

In an addendum to Tom’s review of The Martian I mentioned that although I appreciated there being a movie that held such trust in a rational response to problem-solving, I pined for a time when the more acceptable cinematic solutions were those of chaotic-neutral variety. Well, I have good news for cinema goers with a yen for that particular streak of dark insanity. I predict that we’ll be seeing a lot more films about the failure of rational decision-making and its fruits in the future, as well as more films dispensing with rationality altogether.

Which makes Arrival in some ways already a dated movie. Much like The Martian it prizes a rational and methodical process, and places extreme trust in it winning out. This is an extremely optimistic film which, though it doesn’t take a completely unrealistic view of what problems people make for themselves, still manages to place rationality on a high pedestal. This can make it rather tough to stomach in current times. Luckily it has many other strong defining qualities, chief of which is heaviness. Cosmically heavy, intellectually heavy, thematically heavy and heavy emotionally. A potent brew for fans of being crushed by the cosmos and life on earth.

It’s best to go into Arrival pretty cold on specifics, so plot stuff I’m not really gonna get that far into. To skim, it’s primarily about language. This extends to its use of some well-learned tropes of film. Bits of dialogue and characters can seem lifted from other tested sources, which is usually a major bummer but in Arrival it proves to be an effective shorthand, off-loading tons of busy work so it can get to the big questions. It’s extremely visually inventive, replete with sweeping vistas, a hand-rolled visually-based alien language, and an incredible scene that uses seemingly only white and shades of gray.  Acting wise, Amy Adams is in the film and she rocks.

Arrival as well passes the Keanu test and is chock full of references to his films, including a sly reference to Speed. A film which in one of the great looks behind the curtain of film’s shared language, made clear that a relationship built upon a shared stressful situation may not truly be what it is. It as well shares a great deal with Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, a film whose undying optimism is based in the belief that an unmoored relationship to time’s (perceived) linear march is the secret to saving humanity’s soul. Denis Villeneuve has obviously studied Keanu’s films, and here it serves him well.

For these reasons and more, Arrival is definitely worth watching. I don’t really see how you can come out of it without at least a few new ideas. Like most films that seek to achieve such a high concept it doesn’t hit all its marks but I personally think it’s silly to ding something so ambitious that’s mostly successful. Such deliberateness can be seen as a sense of inflated purpose to some, and there’s something to be said for becoming the thing by scuttling towards its side. To become the thing through a mostly straight line though is important as well, and can be a valuable blueprint of understanding more complex and less intentional success.

I do feel it’s important to enjoy this particular strand of victory while we can, for this age of rational cinema may be ending. Films that can explore notions of post-humanity so purely and with such conviction will be heading the way of the buffalo, if only for a little bit. For that Arrival should be celebrated. A powerfully optimistic, mature and above all else, a reasoned approach to our reality. Long live rational cinema, all hail the new era and what insanity we can muster.


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I went to the theater and watched it ($15.50; UA Court Street theater 12 “all the way at the top”) on the strength of Davey’s rec. Here’re some thoughts from my Corner.

(I’m never gonna say it again; please assume “Spoilers” from me from here on out on this blog.)

  • It’s like a core opinion of ours that it’s worth watching dumb movies because their failures generate a kind of fun set of inquiry and experience that the movies do not directly intend or anticipate. Arrival is a textbook Good Bad Movie: though it fails to hit its own marks – it’s not a Great Film, or an Instant Sci-Fi Classic, it’s not Smart, and it’s not good at all as a Serious Movie – it’s fun to watch because it maybe accidentally hits some other points instead.
  • Like uhhh if time is a construct of language, but the meaning of the alien language is only understood in translation, how does that translation act not require the inheritance of the human-language-based time-construct onto the interpretation of the pictograms. Even if Amy Adams could use the alien system to communicate human ideas, aren’t those still, ya know, human ideas.
  • And like if the idea is that you can have “future memories” because time is slippery, but you’re still experiencing it in order, I guess I don’t get how this means you can also have “perfect future recall” ? Wouldn’t this be consciousness-shattering at minimum, or like, so fully altering of your reality paradigm, that being able to perform an act like the deus ex machina with the chinese general at the big party would be fundamentally impossible through all the unfiltered noise of “constantly lived” moments? Isn’t this “way more fucked up” from a functional-reality perspective than like, being in the throes of the furthest reaches of psychedelic experience?
  • Or put another way, if language is software for perceiving and ordering reality, wouldn’t there be strict, blocking hardware requirements barring Amy Adams from running the pretty intense software update she I guess downloaded from the critters?
  • Okay okay okay and so all that aside, does everyone have time-insensitivity in the near-ish future, or just Amy Adams, and how exactly will time-insensitivity help solve the world’s problems? And like where’s the minimum viable engagement with the metaphysical implications of future knowledge? Are the rules that “Amy Adams is unavoidably gonna tell Jeremy Renner the bad news,” or does she now know in the past not to, because it’ll make her bummed and lonely, and so she won’t? Or what.

Also =

  • They truly unleashed the tropes on this one, often without bothering to change the default settings. I think Davey’s read, that this deployment of tropes was meant to intentionally reinforce the core-conceptual language stuff on a film-language meta level is extremely interesting, but, to my viewing, generous.
  • The dialogue is noteworthily sewer-grade. Consider e.g. Jeremy Renner to Amy Adams: “My whole life I’ve been looking at the stars…” can you guess where this is going?!?!…. “…but the most amazing thing I found was you.”
  • They make Forest Whittaker (Species, Ghost Dog, The Crying Game) say his bad dialogue with an unrecognizable accent = I’m into it
  • Why did Forest Whittaker take a helicopter to Amy Adams’s house at like 5am for the followup interview, and how does a college professor live alone in a baller house on the lake.
  • Good luck if you try to watch this on a laptop. Only the big screen
    arrival-inverted
    default avatar: the ship

    will do the image of the giant black default avatar/Mork-egg spaceships justice.

  • There’s no emotional commitment to the characters (or really any character development), and all the drama and tension is super artificial and thin; there’s the sense that someone at the top felt that this movie needed an antagonist, so several(!) antagonists were added, and they’re all thin too.
  • Meanwhile the critters are 100 foot obelisks with tentacle fingers for legs/hands/mouths. They live in a room full of white smoke, that has a glass wall shaped like a movie screen (or cop mirror). But the glass wall doesn’t stop an explosion from hurting one of them, and Amy Adams goes into the white smoke room via a back entrance through a rat turd she boards, and is fine, so I didn’t really get what this staging device was all about (other than “a cost-cutting measure”).
  • Amy Adams has a “crazy dream,” seemingly just to get a non-smoke room shot of a critter into the movie = I’m into it
  • Compare the ship entrance corridor/critter glass screen area to the mind-cavity corridor and behind-the-eyes thing in Being John Malkovich (1999).
  • I thought the movie did a lot of really obvious work, and was frustrated e.g. when Jeremy Renner said “zero-sum game” and the movie cut back to the memory tableau this phrase was a callback to. But Davey told me he thought this was fine – that a movie’s doing more narrative work frees an audience to do the work of dealing with challenging concepts. I definitely feel grated and don’t like it when any text does my reading for me, but I guess mileage varies on that one.
  • All computers seemed to have an inactive terminal window open? Also I guess some government rolled their own Google Hangouts video chat replacement software, and all the different language teams around the world got permission to download and install it = hell ya I’m into this too
  • Do the critters know about the Lucent Technologies logo. What about the Germs logo.

3 thoughts on “Arrival”

  1. Would humbly propose that this movie was 100% easier to read as coherent/serious/well-done if seen within 1 week of the election. Though this makes me curious if Contact, to my mind the psychically most similar film, had some kind of local-to-1997 effect that would be imperceptible now.

  2. “All the drama and tension is super artificial and thin; there’s the sense that someone at the top felt that this movie needed an antagonist, so several(!) antagonists were added, and they’re all thin too.”

    I guess this view hinges on whether you buy into the backdrop of hysteria that is the world not knowing what the situation is nor trusting governments to adequately handle it, especially covertly. Agreed that the rapid villainization of Agent Halpern toward the end was kinda ham-fisted, but throughout I felt that the steady off-screen escalation of international suspicion and dread––an outgrowth of the flawed human tendency to either quickly render what is unknown neatly legible or blow it up, which tellingly in this case was triggered by the unidentified floaters simply hanging out in the sky––was a nice stand-in for a traditional good guy-bad guy binary.

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