Saturday, December 10, 2016


Arrival is the rare science fiction film that manages to execute a nifty science fiction conceit while also telling a gripping character story on a human scale, as well as commenting broadly on the state of humankind. The film does an excellent job of cycling through sequences of curiosity, suspense, and poignancy throughout its length, while at the same time dropping hints about the nature of its time travel conceit. Moreover, it also gracefully weaves its science fiction premise – aliens give humanity the gift of a language which unlocks time once you learn it – into the emotional development of the characters, providing a touching emotional cocktail at the film’s conclusion.

I admired the way the film hints at its handling of time travel. Some of these hints are fairly routine, like the voiceover that begins the film: the main character, Louise, questions time’s linearity, but in vague terms (she could be talking about memory). Toward the middle of the film, her colleague Ian drops another telling hint: in a sequence that may or may not be part of a dream, he suggests that our way of conceiving of the world might be conditioned by the languages we use to understand it. However, the most creative way the film hints at its time travel conceit is through its use of flashbacks and ellipses – or what appear to be flashbacks and ellipses, at least to viewers.

The film begins with what seems like an extended prologue in the beginning, showing excerpts of Louise’s life raising her daughter Hannah, who dies of cancer as a teenager. Louise seems haunted by this trauma throughout the film, letting frequent reveries – which we’re meant to understand as flashbacks – interrupt her work on the alien language. However, these reveries are not flashbacks, but are moments where Louise actually experiences different moments in her life; as she learns the alien language, her consciousness slips back and forth through time, like someone scrubbing back and forth on a video timeline. The cleverness here is in making the conventions of film form – flashbacks, in this case – perform a double duty. Throughout, we’re invited to understand Louise’s reveries as flashbacks, until she starts to react to them as if she is conscious of the vividness with which viewers experience them. They are as present and immediate for her as they are for us. More significantly, they aren’t flashbacks, but flashforwards: Louise’s daughter is the child she will have with Ian in the future, once the main plot of the film has concluded, not a daughter she's already lost in her past.

Not only are these disguised flash-forwards a creative use of film conventions and deft sleight of hand, but the revelation of the film’s misdirection is also nicely handled. The film makes it clear that these are flashforwards during its climax, but narrative interest does not hinge on the surprise of the revelation, but on the suspense of whether or not Louise will be able to use her new time traveling ability (or perhaps simply prescience) to thwart an international crisis. Thus for viewers able to figure out beforehand that the flashbacks are actually flashfowards, the revelation does not come off as an underestimation of the intelligence of the audience, but a reward for those who figured it out beforehand.

Additionally, the time travel conceit is more than just well-executed narrative misdirection. It also enriches the film because it is integral to the gripping, human story about love and loss at its center. Louise knows that the path of loving Ian and starting a family with him will ultimately lead to the death of their daughter, but decides that this life is still worth living, tragedy and all. It’s a life she has both yet to live, and one that she has already lived, which gives the glimpses we see of her future with Ian and Hannah poignancy and warmth, and gives Louise’s behavior in the present an air of quiet wisdom. She savors the present because she is always viewing it through the lens of events that have yet to happen. Thus she is able to tell Ian - in perhaps the film's most emotionally effective line - that she had forgotten how good it felt to be held by him when he is in the process of holding her for the first time.

However, in making this decision to have a daughter with Ian, Louise’s behavior also raises questions about free will and predestination. Does Louise even have a choice, or is her consciousness moving through a timeline that is already set? Could she choose not to tell Ian about Hannah’s inevitable death years before Hannah is even sick, for instance, in order to avoid going through the trauma of losing her by herself? This question remains unanswered, but somewhat to my own surprise, I’m not sure I wanted the film to answer it. Usually I love it when films get into the nitty gritty of these sorts of logic puzzles (Primer and Edge of Tomorrow are fun for precisely these reasons, along with getting to see Tom Cruise murdered repeatedly in the latter). However, Louise is such a strongly written and acted character that it didn’t bother me that the film raised this question without answering it. For Louise, at least, knowledge of the future is not enough for her to want to change her present, thus we don’t need to worry about feedback loops where the future is constantly changing with every variation made in the present. What’s more, the film even manages to execute the Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure trick of doing something in the future to help you in the present.

Louise’s story of love and loss is only a part of the human scale of this film, however. Also just as gripping are the scenes of suspense and scientific discovery. There are two suspense set pieces: one where Louise and Ian are making a breakthrough with the aliens while they are in imminent danger from a bomb planted by rogue enlisted soldiers (perhaps the film's least effectively motivated development, even if the suspense of the resultant scene is top notch), and another where Louise must solve the riddle of the alien language in order to deescalate an impending attack on one of the alien vessels. These scenes are competently executed, and rely on all of the normal trappings of suspense (the relative desirability and likelihood of various outcomes, our possessing more knowledge than the characters, etc.). The film also manages to make painstaking scientific research exciting. Watching Louise and Ian figure out the alien language and use it to start communicating with them conveys the thrills of exploring the unknown without having to suffer the penalty of doing the hard work. I always appreciate a film that makes research into good drama (see also All the President's Men, and it's 2015 reincarnation, Spotlight).

At the same time that the film is successful at creating suspense, arousing excitement over scientific discovery, and telling a compelling story about Louise, it also raises the specter of how small-minded humankind can be: how divided and defensive we are; how a lack of communication can sow chaos and discord; how fear and ignorance can threaten to overwhelm brilliance and enlightenment. While the scientists and linguists at the center of the film calmly and rationally go about their work, television news excerpts provide glimpses of the rest of the world in Arrival reacting irrationally to the alien vessels: riots; looting; mass suicides; radio blowhards spouting nonsense and being taken seriously, and other forms of panic among the general public. The film ultimately offers a glimmer of hope: reason, communication, and empathy prevail in the end. Perhaps the same might be said of the dark political times in which we now live. May science, reason, logic, understanding, and empathy always prevail over under-education, fear, ignorance, and fascism.

Other thoughts:

- Amy Adams is fantastic in this film – her performance is a tricky rope to walk. It’s easy to read the emotional reservation of her character as that of a woman who has experienced the trauma of losing a child, but retrospectively, her behavior can simply be understood as trying not to be overwhelmed by the incredible things she sees and does. Her performance needs to serve both of these possible motivations, and it does so admirably. Jeremy Renner is also good – he seems to be sliding comfortably into Brad Pitt territory, which I loosely think of as “Never Bad.”

- Another unanswered question: why will these aliens need humanity’s help in 3,000 years? Stay tuned for the sequel, Arrivals.

- Gotta admit, I was pretty pleased with myself for figuring out that the flashbacks were flash-forwards ahead of time. It dawned on me when Ian suggested that learning the alien language was affecting Louise's perception of reality.

- My oh my is Arrival beautiful. I particularly liked how it delays fully revealing the alien vessel until Louise arrives in Montana. This delay is especially effective in one moment early in the film, when the aliens first arrive while Louise is scheduled to teach a class, and students ask Louise to turn on the classroom TV. Rather than showing us the television and then showing the reactions of Louise and the students, instead we only see Louise and the students reacting to the television, saving the reveal for the image above. Indeed, the clouds pouring over a mountain range look like an alien landscape when juxtaposed with the seed-shaped alien vessel.

- The sound design is also incredible. Excellent use of both score and sound effects to convey the awesome terror of confronting the unknown in the first few scenes with the aliens.

- This film has eaten the lunch of Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

- I liked the Play-Doh version of Abbott that we see in a flash-foward.

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