Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The Occasional Media Consumption: Arrival

I want to talk about Arrival and how amazing it is as a story, but before that, I have to talk about how amazing it is as a film and how amazing it is that the film got made exactly how it got made.

Arrival is based on a short story, "Story of Your Life", by Ted Chiang. It's a short story about a woman linguist who handles a first-contact situation without guns or explosions or lasers or really anything science-fiction-y. Just a woman and her colleagues talking (and talking about language). No man takes over from her, no conflict is spurred by her relationship with anyone, nothing weird or strange. So in that, the short story itself is rather odd and special. Special because it is a fundamentally beautiful story, exceptionally well-written, clear and gorgeous and worth reading even on it's own. But I'm not sure you should read it without seeing the movie first, because the movie is amazing in its faithfulness to the story.

And that, in and of itself, is remarkable. I mean, let's be clear. Someone in Hollywood was convinced (after, I understand, something like a decade of fighting) to give the writer of Final Destination 5 and the director of Polytechnique forty million dollars to shoot a science fiction film that stars Amy Adams as a linguist and no one actually fires any guns. The closest thing to a male lead is Jeremy Renner as a physicist who never takes his shirt off or punches anyone, and the climax of the film involves finding a cellphone that makes overseas calls. The biggest chunk of the special effects budget is spent on making circles appear on a piece of glass. This is the kind of movie you expect to see coming out of SXSW that was made with gaffer's tape and flashlights and gets shown in five theatres at film festivals. Except that it stars Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner and Forrest Whitaker, and grossed a hundred million dollars domestic. So yes, just the mere fact that this movie exists is in itself remarkable.

But more than that, Arrival is in and of itself a remarkable film because it is really good. I mean, not just OK, not just "good for an SF movie", but seriously, no-kidding good. It's written incredibly tightly and clearly. No characters carry the "idiot ball"; no characters are evil just to drive the plot -- in fact, no characters are actually evil, it's just that some are misguided at points; no characters make nonsensical statements; and at no point does the script resort to technobabble. The closest thing to technobabble is the linguistic discussions around the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which has lost some of its support since the story was originally written. Like the really good films that play with linearity, like Memento or Primer, Arrival makes even more sense when you see it again, while also being a really great movie the first time you see it.

Amy Adams does this amazing job of playing Doctor Banks as this quiet, careful, precise person, who is shaped (and reshaped) not just by the big things that happen to her, but also by the small things, the little intersections of daily life. Jeremy Renner as Ian Donnelly mostly hovers in the background, doing math and being confused, and Forrest Whitaker as Colonel Weber is the reluctant military man, who is willing to go to war but recognizes it as a failure rather than a methodology. No one is unreasonable or stupid or lazy or unthinking. This is a movie that is, at its heart, what John Rogers has called "competence porn": the experience of watching people who are really, really good at something doing what they're really, really good at in a way that's enjoyable to those that aren't as good. The whole parable of the kangaroo is both funny and smart, and makes a point that is important to the plot.

I said on Twitter when I first saw this movie that this was possibly a perfect movie because the plot is incidental to the story. And here's what I mean by that: plot is what happens to the characters. And the plot in Arrival is really great, and the growth of the characters on screen is amazing and enjoyable to watch. The story, on the other hand, is what happens to the audience. Story, a good story, changes the way that we the audience see ourselves; it changes how we see the world; and it can change the way we see movies. Arrival does that, too. It asks the audience a question: is there such a thing as determination? Is free will possible? And can those two ideas co-exist at the interface of human and not-human?

There are not many movies like Arrival. And I am very glad that there was a production company that was, however long it took, willing to let artists be artists together. And I'm glad Ted Chiang wrote the short story that inspired the movie that prompted me to read it. So I guess we know where I come down on the question of Free Will...