When Malick Met ET & Titanic in Space

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This piece here is spoiler-free, because I think any reviewer who cannot avoid spoilers is a lousy reviewer (OK, I’ve been guilty of it, too). I once reviewed Hancock without giving anything away, and that’s a film that’s really hard to review without spoilers, so I consider it my personal best. Ahem.

I had no problem sitting through Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival. It’s intriguing science fiction. But only up to a certain point.

It’s been called “intelligent science fiction,” it’s been identified as an Oscar contender, it’s been a lot of things. Certainly, the concept and story of Arrival have been the stuff of heavy discussion.What does it all mean? What is this whole idea behind the alien visitors’ motive? What’s really happening to Amy Adams’ character Louise Banks? What’s all this strange science behind it?

I won’t purport to understand Arrival‘s science, which to me is more metaphysics than hard science because of how it is used in the story. I’m pretty sure Ted Chiang had it all figured out a long time ago before he wrote his short story. So, I won’t argue.

My problem is with Arrival as a film. Alien visitors to Earth almost always inspires effects-heavy action thrills and spills in Hollywood. But here Villeneuve tries to turn an idea traditionally linked to action into something more cerebral and profound. He’s also not new in this direction and effort. Nicholas Roeg tried it once with the late David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), as many others also have.

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The main pull of stories such as this is the question “Why?”. More than who or how, it’s always the why that’s more pertinent. And so, naturally, the country’s leadership in Arrival wants to know “Why are they here?”. This is also the main thing that the entire story hinges on. If the answer is not convincing or plausible, then the whole film goes down the drain.

Arrival‘s answer to that question is ridiculously echoed by a line in a Tom Cruise sports movie, and is magnified by a rose-tinted fantasy of Utopia, granted with warts and all. But still.

I’ve made the comparison elsewhere that Robert Zemeckis’ accessible and pop culture-oriented Contact is a far more profound and interesting “first contact” film. It has some solid theoretical science that inspires both inquiry and speculation (thanks largely to Carl Sagan), and it’s all packaged in very simple terms yet is deeply affecting and heartfelt. Science for the ordinary man is always best that way. Just ask Stephen Hawking.

But Arrival‘s idea of why aliens would want to visit us is left too obfuscated, too oblique, with only a suggestion of “specieal” interdependence. In Contact, the aliens reached out because they also understood what loneliness feels like, and wanted to let us know that we are not alone in the universe. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, it was because every being in the universe could attain a higher consciousness, and the human species needed a little push. In these two films, there are common goals. But in Arrival, the reason seems more like an excuse for the story.

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Perhaps that’s also why Villeneuve has to resort to Terrence Malick-inspired visuals and an overbearing score by Johann Johannsson (as a standalone though, it’s pretty listenable stuff) to gain any ounce of profundity. Contact achieved its depth and weight simply through Eleanor Arroway’s character. In short, Arrival just tries too hard.

The other gripe I have is with Villeneuve himself. Granted, I’ve only seen Sicario and Arrival, and not his other films. But from these two alone, it can already be gauged that Villeneuve’s politics are dubious at best. Much like Kathryn Bigelow and The Hurt Locker, Villeneuve’s Sicario seems to denote a conservatism in the guise of necessity. It makes excuses for all the atrocities ever committed by the CIA. The ending of that film has been debated, but clearly, with Benicio del Toro’s despicable character presented as “cool” and “awesome”, letting him walk away unscathed is itself despicable.

In Arrival, China and Russia are portrayed as paranoid, jittery and unreasonable, easily provoked to aggressive behaviour towards the aliens. A friend of mine rightly pointed out that the Americans were the first to be aggressive, but at no point is it attributed to bad leadership, nor are the hawks in Washington ever shown on screen. Contrast that with  one Chinese General Shang who keeps appearing on TV, once even accompanied by nationalistic rhetoric. In reality, the US, the most aggressive country in human history, would have nuked the aliens out of the sky without a second thought (and probably blamed it all on China and Russia!). I couldn’t help but chuckle at those scenes and think “Who are they trying to kid?”

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It’s this kind of cartoonish portrayal of geopolitics that takes the film down many notches. Again, contrast this with Contact and The Martian, two films that elevate the efforts of private individuals instead of governments, to provide the solutions to seemingly insurmountable odds, all while the governments are busy bickering. A dying billionaire provides Ellie with an alternate machine for her to travel across space, while scientists from both the US and China decide among themselves to collaborate to bring stranded astronaut Mark Watney home. Clearly, Carl Sagan and Andy Weir understood better.

But like I said before, Arrival is undoubtedly entertaining when it’s mostly slowly revealing its secrets. (The aliens’ speech sounds a lot like whale songs to me.) But at some point, especially when it has not many mysteries left to engage us, it gets burdensome with the idea of language and its implications. This concept of the power of language isn’t anything new or astounding, as many other filmmakers have explored it in myriad ways. I’m not sure if anyone’s done it in science fiction though. Please do leave a comment if you can enlighten me.

Meanwhile, Contact is endlessly fascinating and surprising, up until its very end. You can argue that it’s just pop ideas of science, but that’s really the right way to inspire awe and imagination when it comes to science. Who wants to sit through a boring, serious lecture about wormholes and space-time (and languages)?

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As for the other “science fiction” film, Passengers, do not be fooled. While it may look like a film with a central mystery to it – why the two passengers wake up from hibernation much earlier than the other 4,998 on board – it’s really Titanic in Space. It’s a maudlin, romantic disaster movie that, while I do make the comparison, has none of the classic romantic adventure of James Cameron’s Titanic (although it has the line “You die, I die!” and Chris Pratt’s character gets frozen at some point). It’s a movie designed for young adults and those with a penchant for its leads’ attractive physical features.

Those looking for speculative inquiries into alien languages, please stay away.

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