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Flixist Discusses: An Analysis of Denis Villeneuve's Arrival [Part 2]

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The big questions

In the 24 hours since part one of this discussion was posted, I was talking with a friend about something completely unrelated when I realized that the point I was trying to make directly relates to my feelings on Arrival. It's a complex movie, deep and meaningful and applicable in weird ways to a whole lot of life. When I look back on 2016, this is going to be one of the movies I remember, one of the bright spots in this dumpster fire of a year.

So, anyways, here we continue our discussion. Yesterday, we talked around some of those thematic elements. Today, we dive right into them (and also talk about some other stuff). As with before: Spoiler Warning. If you haven't seen it, you'll be confused and also sad. So, go see it, then come back and read this. And then talk about it with us. As long as this is (and it is fairly long), there is just so much more to say.

Alec: That liberal vs. conservative idea is interesting, and my gut reaction is that it's probably true (assuming we're talking explicitly about alien films)... but I'm sure you could find an exception (to prove the rule). I wonder if there's a similar case to be made re: optimistic or not films. Or, more to the point, I wonder how the political climate will affect the mood of films with both liberal and conservative ideologies going forward. Will liberal films become crushingly sad across the board to reflect their reality or become  happy as they embrace, uh, fantasy and escapism?  

I wonder if Arrival would have been different if pre-production began now instead of years ago. I'm thinking yes.

I mentioned earlier that one of my colleagues hated the film. His first problem, when I asked why (this was before I had seen it) was that it didn't have a lot of dialogue. (Aside: This is interesting, though not necessarily surprising, for a film that is about language.) He thought it was confusing and that the twist (reveal) didn't work. Etc. I think this may be Villeneuve’s best film, but it's definitely not his most accessible. The “This is thinking person’s sci-fi” reputation is deserved, and if anything I think it was intended to be more opaque than it is. The genuinely bizarre and out-of-nowhere narration from Jeremy Renner felt like a capitulation to the studio over a montage that had been designed for musical accompaniment and nothing else. The decision to leave Banks’ perspective in that moment (especially since it's still about her) is jarring as heck.

Genuine question: Are there any scenes in the movie without her that you can recall? I feel like there aren't. And so there's that one weird dark spot coloring an otherwise brilliant experience. And it hardly ruins the film. It's just… why? Everything else is so deliberate.

I think it's almost time (ha!) to really get into this thing, but before we do, do you have any other thoughts on the film in general? Even if I didn't think it was so relevant and important, it's just a damn good movie, with gorgeous cinematography and some genuinely great performances.

Hubert: Yeah, I agree with you about Jeremy Renner’s narration midway through the film. Everything else in that movie is filtered through Louise’s point of view, and that sudden imposition of Renner’s character just comes out of nowhere. Whereas other scenes seem deliberately ruminative, the learning montage is purely functional. It probably was the “let’s explain this to you if you don’t get it yet” moment in the screenplay, and may have been made more explicit by the studio. That montage and narration would be just fine if they used Louise’s voice and channeled it through her point of view. It wouldn’t be that difficult to make it work that way. It’s her story, after all. Maybe they just needed to give Renner’s character (off the top of my head, I can’t recall his name) something to do.

I guess Renner’s character in Arrival is similar to Amy Adams’ Lois Lane in Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice--just stand around and look handsome/pretty, and let your significant other be heroic and save the day.

We can go in a lot of directions with this conversation about Arrival. I eventually want to get to the idea of free will, determinism, and predestination, but maybe we can save that for the end. I find that discussion determines whether people find the movie hopeful/optimistic or fatalistic/pessimistic. (Just more future stuff in the present. Don’t mind me.)

What’s one of the things that struck you most about Arrival while watching it?

Jeremy Renner AND Amy Adams

Alec: That house. I want that house so bad.

Actually, though: the design of the aliens. I didn't see the trailer, so I didn't know what they looked like (were they humanoid? were they terrifying?). My gut reaction to their lack of “human”ness was “Oh thank God,” because that would have been a cop out from a design perspective. They aren't from here and they shouldn't look like us. Period. And they didn't, and I was glad about that.

But as I consider it, I think about their head-like thing, which we only see in the sequence in the fog. There are those indents, as though they have eyes there. I don't see any practical purpose for those other than to give a face of sorts for the audience to look at in that moment. Humans will see faces in everything (see: trees, the moon, toast), so you don't have to do much to make us subconsciously think about them. And to make them, in that moment, even the slightest bit human allows for another level of connection. In a sequence where we're actually just watching the sort-of-head for a while, we need that.

But I think about what a more humanoid design might have done. Diverting back to politics (or, at least, real-world issues) for a moment, much of the fear and hatred in the world right now is aimed at the Other, where that's a race, gender, culture, socioeconomic class. We take people who look like basically us and then box them off. With the Heptapods and their very definitively Other design, you're starting from scratch on empathy. But there's also no prejudice against them. It's an actual blank slate. And how you ultimately feel about them says something about your empathy for other beings but not for your fellow man. A human-like alien race (or one that presented as alien and made a point of being like, “We actually look like something else, but figured you'd appreciate this”) would have added an interesting other level. I'm imagining someone shouting, “IF YOU'RE GONNA BE HERE, JUST LEARN ENGLISH, DAMN IT.”

Arrival’s too subtle for that, but I'm calling it right now: We will see a science fiction movie with an equivalent line of dialogue in some equivalent situation in the next four years. (If we haven’t already.)

And yeah, I agree that that’s where this conversation is fated (what a great pun) to end up. If you want to go there now, you can have the first word on that. If there’s more you want to say beyond that, though, I’m game.


Hubert: I really enjoyed that heptapod design as well. Tentacles and that raw seafood look immediately make people queasy and distrustful. H.P. Lovecraft was onto something about the creeping chaos of the local sushi restaurant. But yeah, the vestigial torso-and-head at the end is so oddly inelegant yet fitting for where the story has gotten at that point. The moment we see that human-like shape is when the heptapod tells Louise that its companion is “in the death process”. What a fascinating construction, that sentence, and what a time for an English translation of heptapod to finally appear on screen. I thought the way the ink emerges from the heptapods like squids to form their language was pretty inspired as well. The look of the language informs the creature’s look and vice versa. So many smart, deliberate choices.

I wonder how this movie would have played out with human-like aliens, especially now when audiences sort of expect something alien about the aliens we see. Maybe the alien visitation movie in the post-Trump era will have someone demand that the aliens “Speak American” or “Take off that breathing hood”. Though maybe that would make things too preachy in certain hands.

Which reminds me: Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter) is set to direct a remake of Alien Nation, which was all about human-like aliens assimilating with the human race like a new immigrant community. The movie was all right, but the TV show and made-for-TV movies were much, much better. Makes me wonder how the remake will address our current political moment. It seems unavoidable to me now, even if they did try to make it a buddy cop movie like the original film. And you know, it’s almost fitting that in 2016 the two movies Nichols put out were Midnight Special (an indie take on 80s science fiction) and Loving (a movie about a mixed-race couple’s love in the face of bigotry). Alien Nation has gone from a curiosity from a filmmaker I like to a potentially important statement about the early 21st century. Which, come to think of it, makes that hypothetical film like Arrival.

So about Arrival’s implications about free will and determinism and predestination. The big question: do you think Arrival is melancholy but ultimately hopeful or is it sad and fatalistic? I don’t mean about global peace or anything, but rather the idea that we might not be able to change the future. That certain sorrows in our lives, like certain joys, are unavoidable? I think it’s painfully hopeful since it suggests that even though you may be miserable now, there was still a moment of joy in the past that was just as real. It’s an affirmation of good and bad things as a whole, and that maybe some handfuls of genuine happiness are a justification for a lifetime of general boredom, depression, and unhappiness. (Though my read on this also speaks to the privileges of a middle-class upbringing in the first world.)

Looking at their language

Alec: Honestly, I think it's neither of those things, because I don’t even think the film is ultimately that melancholy. I read someone somewhere say that this is probably the most hopeful movie they’ve ever seen -- it assumes humans will still be around in 3000 years.

But, joking aside, I do genuinely think this an optimistic movie. I left the theater feeling kind of upbeat, and part of that was because it was a great movie and that usually makes me feel good, but there was more to it than after. I realized that it was because of the way Dr. Banks’s decision at the end is played. When she decides to hold onto Jeremy Renner, she does so knowing that they will be together, they will have a young girl, she will tell him that their young girl is going to die, it will break his heart and his relationship with the daughter, the daughter will develop cancer, and the daughter will die.

And she does it anyway. You look at that list, and you’re like… damn. That’s genuinely horrible. She’s guaranteeing never-ending sadness for one man and the literal death of her own child. So, she’s a psychopath, right? And that might be the logical conclusion, but I’m going to not think about it way. What’s unclear is whether or not she thinks she has a choice in the matter. Her actions might imply that she doesn’t, but that’s not how I saw that decision. There’s another read, one that I think it’s evidenced by the fact that she smiles in that moment. She knows the happiness that the daughter brings in the time that she’s alive, and that life with her is better than life without. (It’s better to have loved and lost than not to have loved at all, as they say.)

It might be fatalistic in a literal sense, but I don’t think it’s a function of her resigning herself to or even just accepting her fate; she’s straight-up embracing it.

And I see that as a rejection of the sadness that seems inherent with the life she’s going to lead… but we also don’t really see all the good moments. We see a couple, but we are more generally aware of the bad things that happen than the good, which I think colors the perspective (also, knowing that all of those things happen and thinking about them in a list format is different than the reality of them taking place spaced out over more than a decade). She is the one who lived it and is most qualified to make the decision, and she decides that it is the thing she wants and not just the thing she has to do.

Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner (again)

Hubert: It’s interesting we’re both seeing it as hopeful. I’ve read/heard a few people conclude that Arrival's implications about time and the future are bleak. It is pretty grim to think about not necessarily having any say in your own life. Viewed in those terms, Arrival‘s conclusion could be read as ditching agency for resignation. It’s going to happen anyway, so why try? And yet, we do, continually, on and on, until we die. That’s more than a little sad.

That makes me wonder about Louise telling her husband about their daughter’s death, an act that ruins their marriage. Did she tell him as an attempt to change the future, but it went wrong? Did she tell him because they were having an argument and she wanted to say something awful in the heat of the moment that would hurt? Did she tell him because she thought it would help him deal with loss in the future? Did she tell him because he kept asking her about their daughter and she couldn’t handle being the only person who had access to that secret? Or did she tell him because it was, simply, that time when she was supposed to tell him? There are these fascinating gaps in the future-narrative that Louise as a character might know but the audience has to invent on their own. The relative hope or bleakness of Arrival might be there in the lacunae and how we fill in the blanks.

But yeah, I think it’s hopeful. Louise’s smile, like you mentioned, is her saying yes to all the joy and misery ahead because it will have been worth it. It’s like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. By the end you know it’s not going to end well for Joel and Clementine, but dammit, that love was worth the pain and vice versa--let’s do this!

This aspect of Arrival reminds me of this Friedrich Nietzsche idea of the eternal return of the same (aka eternal recurrence). It’s one of those Existentialism 101 types of ideas, and yet I unavoidably find myself thinking about the shape of my own life in terms of the eternal return. Nietzsche presented a hypothetical situation in which a demon comes to you and says that for the rest of eternity you will have to relive your entire life again, over and over, all of the happiness but also the pain, down to the smallest detail. Nothing new can ever happen in these additional recurrences of life--you are a speck of dust in the great eternal hourglass of existence. If you were confronted with this scenario, would you feel immense anguish and defeat given the futility of it all? Or would you instead welcome this moment, having lived a life worth affirming? Was this worth it?

Ask me one day, I might lean one direction. Ask me another day, I lean the opposite direction. When Louise smiles, you know what she thinks about her life to come. Though I wonder, in the vast lacunae of her life off-screen, about the days that Louise feels otherwise.


Alec: I can imagine so many scenarios in which Dr. Banks would tell him that their daughter was going to die. All of the ones that you listed there and then others. The hypothetical that I find most compelling is that she told him because he asked. That they were talking about the future, that he wanted to know what she saw for their child and for them and she couldn't lie, because she knew he would find out eventually (of course she knows) and she didn't want to have the fight then.

I like that because it has a Pandora’s Box kind of feeling or some other, more appropriate parable that I can't think of: It's his choice to learn the truth, though he is foolish in thinking that he can handle it. In any version of the story, though, it gets at this broader concept froma  very different but equally significant angle: what do you do when you know someone who knows the future? What do you do when you know your daughter is going to die because someone who knows the future has told you, but you can't know it the way they know it? You have to trust it, but at the same time you just can't do that. It's why he can't look at his daughter anymore, because he feels like she's been taken from him because he now knows a horrible truth and, more importantly, he knows he can't stop it. He knows that, no matter how many new treatments there are and how much they put into her recovery, it's going to fail. He feels helpless. (Science will fail him, so it has failed him.) I mean, think of Arrival with the same narrative but from Jeremy Renner’s perspective. I can't imagine a movie much bleaker than that one.

I know I’ve got the last word of this particular discussion, but I’m still going to end on a question. If the future is pre-ordained, then neither of them has agency. But in that world, whose situation is better? In more cliched terms: Is knowledge power… or ignorance bliss?

 

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Alec Kubas-Meyer
Alec Kubas-MeyerReviews & Features Editor   gamer profile

Alec Kubas-Meyer signed up for Flixist in May of 2011 as a news writer, and he never intended to write a single review. Funny, then, that he is now the site's Reviews (and Features) Editor. After... more + disclosures


 


 


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