Arrival (2016)

*. In my notes on Incendies I concluded by saying that Denis Villeneuve’s vision was one that would be hard to maintain when success came calling. I think Arrival shows that he maintained it. Whether he should have, at least to this extent, is another question.
*. Most of what you’d expect from a Villeneuve film is here. The plot that is a slow (very slow in this case) burn. The emotionally scarred and deadened characters who always seem as though they’re half asleep. The painterly settings (natural and urban). Jóhann Jóhannsson’s mournful strings that seem to echo the whale songs of the aliens and the sirens of the base camp. The Heptapods themselves are also familiar, looking like Louise Bourgeouis’s statue of Mother from Enemy, only missing a leg. There’s even a shot where Louise (Amy Adams) has a vision of one in her tent that seems an exact quote of the end of Enemy.
*. But here’s the thing: Arrival is a genre picture. I like how Villeneuve grounds it in such a personal story, but it still needs to move a bit faster than this, especially at the end. The final half hour here really drags. I know that saying one finds a thoughtful film boring or dull is enough to brand one immediately a philistine, but I think the ending would have been a lot more powerful if they’d given it to us straight. Before we drift into the final montage, with Louise truly unstuck in time, we’ve already figured out what’s going on. We know Ian is Hannah’s father, so why be so coy about it until the very end? Was the reveal at the end of La Jetée (1962) any less effective for being so abrupt?
*. Then there is the story. It’s based on a Ted Chiang novella and I guess it’s a decent premise. By that I mean it’s an interesting attempt at making an end run around the paradoxes that come with every time travel story. But it doesn’t hold water. Because they use a different sort of language (which we can still interpret) the Heptapods are able to comprehend all of time at once. Hm. That seems a mighty big leap to make just because they don’t use a past or future tense. And at the end of the day (if the day has an end) I don’t see where it solves any of the problems we’re all familiar with in time travel stories. I won’t go through all the paradoxes; suffice to say they’re all still there, at least by my reckoning.
*. To take only the most important example: the main point being made is similar to that posited by Nietzsche in his myth of eternal recurrence. Here’s the relevant passage from The Gay Science: “What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence – even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!’ Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? . . . Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?”
*. The demon’s question is made real by Louise’s understanding of the Heptapod language. “If you could see your whole life from start to finish, would you change things?” she asks Ian. But it’s an idle question because the real point is whether or not she could change things. That shouldn’t be possible, even given her understanding of the alien language.
*. Another real problem I had with the story was how stupid the military was. In the first place, why is the military in complete control? Where is the president? Why is China being run by General Shang? Why do we only hear it briefly mentioned once near the end that the U.N. might have to get involved in this? You mean they weren’t already?
*. Meanwhile, the military behave like they haven’t learned a thing since The Day the Earth Stood Still. They want to know what these aliens want, and they want to know right now. They’ve got no time for scientific fancy-talk about how complex this might be. And if they don’t get the answers they want, well, even though the aliens are no threat whatsoever, they’re going to have to blow ’em up real good. Hang the consequences! I mean, it just may be that they’re dangerous if provoked — after all, they have spaceships and have mastered faster-than-light travel — but so what? We’ll never know until we launch a few missiles at them.
*. Arrival is something different, and I give it a lot of credit for that. It’s just that standing back from it a bit I’m not sure that many of the risks it takes pay off and I don’t think it’s all that original a story once you strip away the linguistics stuff, which is all window dressing anyway. The film’s design elements are impressive, though the Heptapods themselves look and sound maybe a bit too much like the creatures in The Mist. The cast, as usual for a Villeneuve movie, give subdued performances, and are often half hidden in darkness, shadow, or silhouette. This is all to the good. And yet.
*. It may be that my attention span has entered a zone of terminal atrophy, but I think Arrival could have used more of a spark.

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