Here’s something Ive never told most people: I hardly ever cry, except sometimes at the movies. Perhaps it’s because, as someone I respect very much once told me, I think that art is more real than real life.
“People are just distractions to you,” this person once told me. “They’re impediments in the way of discovering the deeper truths, which you think you can only find in movies and books.” This person may have been a bit facetious when he told me this, but, alas, there is a deeper truth underneath.
But I’m burying the lede – Arrival, the brilliant sci-fi movie directed by Denis Villeneuve and adapted from Ted Chiang’s novelette Stories of Your Life, made me choke up big time. My face twisted into a rictus of abject blubbering. I shook in my seat like an old washing machine gone off-balance. This is my terrible secret; now you’re privy to it.
Part of the strong emotional reaction I had to the film is no doubt related to the subject of last week’s column. Donald Trump is now president, which is terrible in so many ways that I can’t decide, at any given moment, which of them to be depressed about. Setting aside the issues of basic human rights, equality and deportation, there are other issues as well. We won’t get Hillary’s bump to minimum wage. We won’t get any attempt to relieve student loan debt. There will be a general lack of communication, or failure to communicate, between those who are in favor of a Trump presidency, and those who are appalled by it.
I promise I won’t rail about this in every column – in fact I would prefer not to. I look forward to being depressed about something else, like the almost certainly unavoidable environmental collapse that will make every day like Mad Max, or the asteroid that will swing down like the proverbial chariot and take us away from all this.
But in the meantime, I think what I am saying is that Arrival is the movie that thoughtful lovers of science fiction need at this moment, and need badly.
You probably already know what the film is about. A dozen spaceships appear in the Earth’s atmosphere. Shaped like enormous eggs split lengthwise, they land in a series of seemingly randomly selected places, or rather, they hover above them. Every few hours they will open up and admit human visitors. The aliens, which look like enormous seven finger hands, or perhaps squids, communicate with humans from the other side of large windows. They make noises, something like whale-song mixed with low-frequency bass, but their principle means of communication are circular symbols they secret from their appendages. Brilliant linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams), along with scientist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) represent America’s best hope with communicating with the creatures, a job which they throw themselves into as only artists, dreamers, or visionaries can.
Of course there is a ticking clock aspect as well. The Chinese and Russian governments adopt a more belligerent stance towards the aliens after some headway on the creatures’ symbols is made and the word “weapon” begins to recur. As the aliens tell the Russians (a communication intercepted by the CIA), “there is no time”. But this is a message which has more than one meaning – a microcosm for the whole film.
I suppose I’m not spoiling anything when I say that it doesn’t come down to an apocalyptic invasion or Independence Day-esque big dumb fighter jet battle. What does materialize is something far more interesting and humane, moving but not sentimental.
The best movie of its kind since Contact (and in many ways even better than that venerable thinking person’s science fiction treat), Arrival is a vital movie for its time – at least for those who enjoy good films, speculative fiction which favors empathy over antipathy, and good writing. Because at the moment that I nearly collapsed into insensate blubbering it was not necessarily owing to how moved I was by the film, but how transported I was by the elegance of the writing both of Ted Chiang’s original and Eric Heisserer’s screenplay adaptation.
All of which is to say that Arrival made me feel something other than depressed rage and barely contained despair, which should recommend it verily for anyone of my temperament.
But, what’s more, even if someone I liked better than Trump had been elected (and here I’m thinking of perhaps Jabba the Hutt, or Leatherface, or King Joffrey, or anyone really), I’d still be confident proclaiming: Arrival is one of the finest science fiction films of the new century, if not of all time. Please watch it, and feel free to cry.