“In the next place, wonderful as it seems in a sexual world, the Martians were absolutely without sex, and therefore without any of the tumultuous emotions that arise from that difference among men.”
– HG Wells, The War of the Worlds
*I saw Arrival on Saturday – 19 November 2016.
At times, it seems as if science fiction – a genre whose very purpose and nature requires exercising a method of thought outside the norm – is the most rote of film genres. Sure, the format has given us such genre-defining tales as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer to countless others before, after, and in-between. But it’s hard to argue that the vast majority of entries are based around the same good-looking White people who, as Octavia Butler often noted, conquer other species as LASERs fly by.
It’s tempting to place the blame at the feet of a certain galaxy far, far away, but that was only paying tribute to the Flash Gordon yarns that came before it, to say nothing of the imperialism of almost every Burroughs story. Butler herself associated the clichés with another popular franchise of the genre: Star Trek.
Against-the-grain-sci-fi is tough to find at a local multiplex, but not for a lack of trying – indie cinema is often full of sci-fi gems that are lucky to find an audience at all. Still, when a major, studio-financed sci-fi flick takes risks, it’s often a cause for celebration… and when it fails to live up to the hype, it’s a crushing disappointment.
When extraterrestrial crafts arrive at several Earth-bound locations, the world holds its collective breath. Do they come in peace? Is this a conquering force? What does this mean for humanity’s place in the universe? Most importantly: how do we speak to them? The latter question is answered by linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) when she’s recruited by the US government to contact with the new species. To say that she succeeds is an understatement. Louise’s work not only connects our two species, but may well decide the fate of the Earth itself.
Let me start off by saying that yes, I’m aware of the acclaim surrounding this film and a lot of it is deserved. The film is excellently acted – with the majority of that falling on the shoulders of its Oscar-winning leading lady – directed, and paced. As I write these words, I’m trying to recall another mainstream sci-fi film since Close Encounters (to which this film owes a debt) that treated a first contact scenario in both a realistic and intriguing fashion. It’s a credit to all involved that when this film works, it really works.
And that’s why the stuff that doesn’t work is so disappointing. I haven’t read the original short story on which this film is based, so I don’t know if I should place the blame at feet of author Ted Chiang or screenwriter Eric Heisserer. Whatever the case, the film seems to realise it’s been written into a corner and doesn’t know how to get itself out. A wiser author or screenwriter would do the appropriate research and work to find a way out of the conundrum. Instead, we’re given the most insulting, out-of-leftfield “deus ex machina” plot device I can recall in recent memory. A film that hitherto relied on the fact that initial communication is a slow, patient process suddenly introduces a sudden super-human ability. Said ability is introduced to lead to an action sequence that requires – in typical Hollywood fashion – our heroes acting at the very last moment, lest we all be destroyed.
The film started off as a respected academic that knew the importance of layman’s terms, but ended up pandering to the peanut gallery.
Had I only seen the first 2/3rds of the film and the projector suddenly exploded, I’d probably put this film on the top of my “Best of 2016” list, too. Unfortunately, this film undermines and negates its own grand ideas for the sake of keeping itself easily identifiable amongst its more popular brethren. The final act of this film treats intelligence as a hindrance, and that’s not an idea the world (or the multiplex) needs right now.