In 2002ish(?) I went to MIT’s all night Sci-Fi Marathon. Had a few drinks. They showed Ghostbusters, and when Bill Murray said ‘Back off man, I’m a scientist’ the entire crowd lost its mind. It was one of the peak moments of any human life.
The trouble with science fiction film is that, while there are smart serious people in Hollywood, very few people on the ‘creative’ side of the industry appear to value analytical intelligence or have any first- or even secondhand experience of serious abstract intellection. Hollywood’s terrible at capturing what it’s like to solve complex problems by methods other than force or subterfuge. (This is why most ‘spy films’ are just fight films with acronyms.) And screen actors, afforded no rehearsal or research time, reduce ‘intelligence’ to mannerism for an American audience that can’t sit still for movies that are more talk (or think) than, um, explode.
It isn’t just a matter of engineering projects or scientific research, say, being impossible to dramatize — Primer came out 13(!) years ago for Christ’s sake, written on spec and shot/chopped for $7K. It’s that dramatizing hard work is hard work, calling for direct rather than analogical sense of the shape of the work being depicted, and the vanishingly few screenwriters and directors who can handle that work are busy making films for stupid horny distracted adolescents, i.e. ‘making Hollywood movies.’
Which is why Arrival feels not just like a classic science fiction film, which it is, but like a minor miracle.
Fear not, NO SPOILERS FOLLOW. Arrival deserves to be seen fresh.
Complaints first, though: Arrival nominally features two main characters, but Jeremy Renner as Ian the theoretical physicist (alas, not believable) is very much background to Amy Adams’s extraordinary performance as Louise the linguist/translator. Ian is essential to the story, but he hardly acts throughout; he’s the sidekick. That I don’t mind, though — the problem is that one of the interesting intellectual elements of Ted Chiang’s ‘Story of Your Life,’ source material for the film, has been chucked out along with any sense of Ian’s character. (Fermat, if you’re wondering.) Ian’s job in the film is to perform a bit of basic mathematical analysis at a crucial moment in the plot and otherwise be a kind of Manic Pixie Dream Scientist, which makes sense given Louise’s story but makes for a somewhat imbalanced setup: the compelling drama is all internal to her.
The political material is sketched in, and we don’t actually see collaboration between scientists — when Ian says he needs his team and Louise’s working together on a project, that doesn’t mean anything at all in story terms, because we’ve never actually met either team.
It’s a chamber piece with featured soloist.
Fortunately the soloist is Amy Adams, who accomplishes a difficult task: sympathetically evoking the interior life of an analytically intelligent introvert struggling with unbearable personal trauma (the death of a child), the most difficult and consequential professional task of her life, and — almost incidentally — the awesome presence on earth of twelve Big Dumb Objects.
(Chiang’s first published story, ‘The Tower of Babylon,’ effortlessly balances these three elements as well, in a tale which considers the Tower of Babel as both massive civil-engineering project and mind-shattering supernatural encounter. Chiang is infuriatingly good.)
Moreover, the structure of the story — particularly the relationship between Adams’s ruminative introductory/framing narration and the matter-of-fact present-time action — offsets the geopolitical story (race against the military clock) and the central mystery (what do the aliens want?) with an additional note of uncertainty. Adams bears primary responsibility for grounding the audience while the narrative dream deepens and grows stranger. To the credit of everyone involved, especially Adams and heroic screenwriter Eric Heisserer, the climactic revelations make sense not only plotwise but in emotional terms; the finale is unusual in Hollywood terms in that its full implications play out only in retrospect, without any ‘gotcha!’ thriller-plot nonsense. Adams’s emotional line is crystal clear on first viewing, and the understated finale deepens the significance of her choices without making the first viewing ‘obsolete.’ This isn’t a Sixth Sense-style twisty film, it’s something much deeper, about which I won’t say any more…
Two final notes, then.
First: Arrival‘s most immediately significant (i.e. current) achievement is its depiction of an intelligent, introverted, driven, professionally respected American woman who displays a full palette of complex emotions under stress without ever being The Damsel or The Bitch or The Nerd. She’s a fully realized human being, which is to say her femaleness matters to the story but is never simply part of the scenery. Chiang, Heisserer, and director Denis Villeneuve(!!) deserve so much credit for conceiving the character of Louise and shepherding her through the creative process, enabling Adams to deliver this note-perfect performance. Arrival is a film about identity irreducible to identity politics, you might say.
And last: I remember seeing the restored THX-1138 in theaters in 2004; so much of that dreamlike experience has stayed with me, most especially Walter Murch’s immersive ambient soundtrack. Arrival felt at times like Terrence Malick’s THX, the aggressive/trippy mix of mournful strings and hrrrmmm-hoom!! synths combining with the rich ambient sound to create a world truly apart. I don’t listen to a lot of film scores anymore, but I’m seeking this one out, if only to be able to return to Arrival from time to time.
I was — it feels strange to say this but if you know me you’ll understand why I do — I was, I am, grateful for this film.