Shamedown #9. Is that anything like Plan Nine From Outer Space? I hope not, although they’re both sci-fi. Before we get started, as always, here’s the link to Cinema Shame for those who need the Shamedown context. For past Shamedowns, look here.
What if you could see both the beginning and the end of your life? That’s the question posed by Arrival, the 2016 sci-fi film starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner. It may appear to be a typical making-contact film, but it has a twist. A big twist.
Louise Banks’s (Amy Adams) life seems very bleak. She once had a happy existence with her daughter, who died of cancer as a teenager, and in between being tortured by flashbacks, she exists as a humanities professor at a university. One day she walks into class prepared to lecture on the Portuguese language, when a student asks her to turn on the news.
They have landed. Yeah, as in them. Aliens. Class dismissed.
Louise drives home, where she hides out, watching the news and sleeping. Twelve alien ships have landed all over the world, and no one knows anything about them.
She’s snapped out of hibernation by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), who needs her abilities as a linguist to help decipher what the creatures are saying. He plunks a tape recorder down in front of her and plays a few language samples, seeming to think Louise can magically decipher them right off the bat.
No dice. Louise tells him she needs to be at one of the landing sites to effectively make her evaluation because there’s not much she can glean from a tape recording. She needs every inflection, tone, and nuance. In spite of her high government security clearance and an impeccable track record Colonel Weber is equally immovable. He and his tape recorder are out the door.
Weber’s alternate chokes, so he comes back with a helicopter to pick up Louise, and it’s off to Montana, the nearest landing site. Physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) is also along, and his approach to finding out the aliens’ motives are a little bit different. He wants to know how they got there, can they travel faster than light speed, how does their craft work, and so on and so forth.
“Why don’t we just talk to them before we start throwing math problems at them?” Louise asks. Fair point.
Upon arrival at the base camp in Montana, Louise and Ian can’t help but notice the alien spacecraft, which looks like a giant Twix Easter egg, only gray. It opens and closes at certain times of day, allowing humans to go inside and explore. Before they can go inside, though, they have to be briefed.
The American camp is connected to all the other camps around the world, and they’re each trying to figure out what the creatures are saying. Everyone’s a little tense, Chinese general and famously loose cannon Shang (Tzi Ma), in particular, so time is of the essence. If he or anyone else get mad, the world will be at war.
Louise and Ian receive the necessary shots, suit up for their first encounter, and after a brief ride out to the craft, get in a lift for the big entrance. Only it’s not as simple as climbing inside a hatch, as they have to jump onto the wall and walk straight up to a wide window with a lot of white mist.
Out of the fog creep two of the visitors, and they’re hardly the proverbial take-me-to-your-leader types. In fact, they look more like tree roots or seven-fingered hands. Louise and Ian only have a few minutes with them, but it gives Louise time to hold up a dry-erase board with the word, “HUMAN” written on it. In turn, one of the aliens spits out a black vapor, which forms a broken, splotchy circle. Ian dubs the creatures Abbott and Costello.
Now comes the gargantuan task of figuring out what the circular splotches mean, and Louise and Ian measure their lengths and intensity. They discover the splotches are more like characters than an alphabet, and soon their workspace has pictures of deciphered splotches all over it. They build a relationship with the creatures, once Louise breaks the ice by taking off her Hazmat suit.
All is not so tranquil in other parts of the globe, though. General Shang is still agitating, and when his team deciphers one circle meaning “weapon,” they take it to mean that the creatures are hostile. Other camps disconnect from the network because they just want the creatures out of there and are tired of waiting. The American camp has its own troubles, as some of the soldiers watch too many InfoWars-style TV shows and sneak some C-4 onto the spacecraft.
The whole enterprise hinges on Louise, who is trusted by the visitors more than anyone. They let her in on the big secret they want to impart to humanity: Time is circular, not linear. What if the flashbacks Louise has been having of her daughter are really visions? What if her life is an endless cycle of first contact, last contact, discovery, and loss? Would she still make the same choices?
Arrival poses some interesting ideas and questions. I’m not a linguist, but I understand what Louise was doing, and it’s the same thing anthropologists and linguists have always had to do when trying to translate unwritten languages: Find commonality. One site has made fun of the film because Louise’s first word to the creatures is “human.” I disagree, because “human” would have been a word likely to exist in both languages and is a probable starting point. It’s very interesting from a relational standpoint as well, because commonality in some degree is always part of what makes a society civil. Without it, we have chaos.
One thing I also disagree with is the film’s idea of time being this endless circle of sameness. I know there’s this whole idea in quantum physics about the future informing the past, but I believe time is both linear and circular. History does repeat itself, but the cycles are never exactly alike. We have always had conquerors and revolutionaries, we have always had nations die while others are born, we have always had times of profound knowledge and times of deep ignorance.
However, there are certain factors which make each cycle unique, such as society’s moral state. Or, maybe there has been a major natural disaster. Or a plague which has wiped out half the population. Or divine intervention, which causes outcomes no one can explain. Our DNA isn’t even going to be the same as our ancestors’. Every human being throughout history has been unique from the next, even within families. Time is not as simple as the record merely looping back to the starting point.
However, as a film, I think Arrival is terrific. Amy Adams is definitely my favorite actress from nowadays, and her performance as Louise Banks is subdued but intense. She doesn’t let her character get dragged down too far by what she thinks is her tragic past, but allows her to find quiet joy in understanding her purpose in life. Jeremy Renner as Ian is an effective sidekick and a steady shoulder to lean on. I like that the movie didn’t tack on any overt romance between the two during the crisis, but allowed their story to develop naturally. It was more important that Louise and Ian focused on their jobs than on each other until the jobs were done. That’s a refreshing approach in a time when character development is a rare commodity. I’m eager to experience the film again, because I’m sure I’ll find other layers to the story and the characters.
Thanks for reading, everyone, and see you next week with a little bit of horror. It is October, after all. 😉