Blog Directory CineVerse: Squaring the circle of life

Squaring the circle of life

Friday, February 28, 2020

"2001: A Space Odyssey" made it possible to appreciate science-fiction as a thinking person's genre, to elevate it above mere escapist entertainment for the popcorn crowd. And its vibrant offspring, while not rampantly abundant, have clearly benefitted, as evidenced by such cerebral and artistically ambitious fare as "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "Blade Runner," "12 Monkeys," "The Matrix," "A.I. Artificial Intelligence," and "Interstellar." Worthy of that lineage is director Denis Villeneuve's mind-expanding treatise on time, space, and communication, "Arrival," which will have you asking a lot of interesting questions by its conclusion. We certainly had our share as a CineVerse crowd last Wednesday, and here are our attempts at some answers:

Movies that may have inspired “Arrival”

  • The Day the Earth Stood Still
  • Solaris
  • Close Encounters of the Third Kind
  • The Abyss
  • Stargate
  • Sphere
  • Contact
  • Memento
  • Interstellar
  • The Martian

What’s different, unexpected, and maybe even refreshing about “Arrival,” especially compared to previous sci-fi films depicting first human contact with aliens?

  • In many previous “first contact” movies, language often wasn’t a great barrier.
    • Many aliens spoke English, as in “The Day the Earth Stood Still.”
    • In other examples of this subgenre, the aliens assimilated to our form of communication, as evidenced in “E.T.” (where the alien learns to speak English) and “Close Encounters” (where music becomes a universal language).
    • And in hostile invasion films like “War of the Worlds,” “The Thing From Another World,” and “Independence Day,” trying to communicate didn’t matter—killing the enemy mattered.
  • This first contact movie focuses on an interesting practical conundrum: What if the visiting aliens didn’t appear antagonistic or bent on invading, but we couldn’t immediately communicate with them, so each side didn’t know the other’s intentions? Here, the tension is high, because there’s a strong possibility of destruction and tragedy resulting from misunderstanding the other’s intentions as well as from rival nations that may have their own agendas for communication or make rash decisions that lead to combat and destruction.
  • Put another way, this is a thinking person’s sci-fi film—a rare example of a genre movie that doesn’t over-rely on action, battle scenes, eye-popping special effects, or conventionally heroic characters. This story is built more on tense atmosphere, intriguing possibilities, and deeply philosophical matters while also exploring practical issues like how to communicate with alien life forms whose purpose remains unclear.
  • The design of the extraterrestrials, their technology, and their means of communication are distinctive and unique, unlike many previous depictions of spacecraft and otherworldly creatures.

Themes inherent in “Arrival”

  • Free will vs. determinism. *SPOILERS!* The aliens don’t think or live according to our concept of linear time; in their lives, time is circular and the past, present and future are one. Louise learns and experiences this as she begins to assimilate and use the alien language. She begins to see what will happen in her future (previously, the viewer assumed these visions were flashbacks of the past): Louise will give birth to a daughter who will eventually die of cancer. Despite knowing this tragic event ahead of time, she commits to a relationship with Ian and agrees to try and get pregnant.
    • There are two ways of interpreting the ending and major message of this film. On one hand, it suggests that our futures are predestined. On the other, it suggests that free will exists, that we have a choice in our fate.
    • Consider what Louise says to Ian: “If you could see your whole life from start to finish, would you change things?” This implies that Louise has a choice to make: Whether or not to conceive and raise her yet-to-be-born daughter.
    • Nick Statt of The Verge wrote: “Whether Louise can change anything is besides the point. In Arrival’s deterministic universe, free will exists in the form of following through on a choice you already know you’ll make. In effect, by choosing not to alter the future, you’re creating it, and actively affirming it. ‘The heptapods are neither free nor bound as we understand those concepts; they don’t act according to their will, nor are they helpless automatons,’ Louise says (in the original story written by Ted Chiang). ‘What distinguishes the heptapods’ mode of awareness is not just that their actions coincide with history’s events; it is also that their motives coincide with history’s purposes. They act to create the future, to enact chronology.’”
    • Dan Jackson of Thrillist wrote: “On the surface, the ending of Arrival appears to preach a type of determinism you often see in stories about time travel: There's only one set path, and free will is a myth. It can feel bleak, especially if you are inclined to feel that your life (or your country) is heading down the wrong path at the moment. But the film also preaches a type of zen-like acceptance that speaks to larger truths: What's happening now has already happened and will happen again. Chronology is not the most important element of a story -- or, to put it in broader terms, a life.”
  • The challenge of trying to communicate across and collaborate with different cultures and species.
  • The capacity for chaos and misunderstanding without the ability to use language and see things from the other person’s point of view.
  • The ability for one person to make an enormous difference in our world. Consider how Louise isn’t a president, astronaut, famous astrophysicist, or celebrity; she’s a talented linguist whose unique skills and talents can bridge the divide between worlds.
  • The ability for the natural world—including extraterrestrials as well as animals, plants, and life forms here on Earth—to teach humans about themselves. Reviewer James Berardinelli wrote: “Although Arrival is about first contact with extraterrestrials, it says more about the human experience than the creatures from another world.”
  • The relative smallness and insignificance of our planet and our species compared to the vastness of life throughout the universe.

Other films directed by Denis Villeneuve

  • Prisoners
  • Enemy
  • Sicario
  • Blade Runner 2049

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