Arrival and the Challenge of the First-Contact Movie

Posted: November 21, 2016 in Uncategorized
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I saw Arrival. There is a lot that I enjoyed about it. It is a visually stunning film, for one thing. The first good look of the alien ship is a Magritte painting come to life, and the aliens themselves are imaginative, awe-inspiring, and are a refreshing break from the convention of making all benign aliens look reassuringly cute. The score is magnificent, itself alien enough to induce its own fair share of awe. And Amy Adams’ performance as Louise Banks is as powerful as it is understated.

All of these are very good things. Should you see the film? Absolutely. Having said that, I have some reservations. Spoilers follow, and I’m going to talk about the ending, so you have been warned.

There aren’t that many films that tackle first contact with aliens seriously, and here I am excluding invasion stories, where first contact is merely a prologue. I’m thinking here of films where the initial contact is the central focus of the narrative, and that kind of story presents significant challenges. Almost all films of this sort realize the species-wide culture shock that would ensue, but the problem is where to go from there. More specifically, how does the story end? Close Encounters of the Third Kind avoids problems by saving the actual moment of contact for the climax. Contact, on the other hand, opts for the cop-out, leaving things globally at a barely altered status quo, and reducing the historic event to a single character’s Life Journey (TM). Arrival has a number of things in common with Contact (thought it is a far, far better film) in that the personal is foregrounded over the global. The conclusions of both are more satisfying than in Contact, though they still don’t entirely work. I’ll get back to this problem shortly, but first I want to bring in what remains, for me, the yardstick of first-contact movies: 1951’s The Day the Earth Stood Still.

Both Arrival and The Day the Earth Stood Still have benign aliens arrive on Earth, causing immense global consternation. They seek to give a message to, effectively, the entire globe at once, but their efforts to do so are hampered by human suspicion and, eventually, human violence. Our mistakes put us within moments of catastrophe, which is narrowly averted. There is no denying that the science and alien design of Arrival are far more sophisticated than what we encounter in The Day the Earth Stood Still, even making allowances for the passage of time. But in the end, it is Arrival that strikes me as being the more naive of the two. A single phone call by Amy Adams convinces the Chinese not to attack the alien ships, and somehow, their stepping down is immediately good enough for Russia and everyone else too. We are given a glimpse of the future, where a new unity seems to reign over the human race as our next great adventure begins. By contrast, Klaatu in The Day the Earth Stood Still warns us that we must live in harmony, or be destroyed. The film concludes with humanity facing that stark choice, and makes our ultimate survival very much an open question. As Adrienne Rich’s great dark birds of history savage our world, Arrival‘s optimism feels instantly dated, while The Day the Earth Stood Still seems to me clear-eyed and painfully up to date.

If the conclusion to Arrival‘s global story is too pat, the ending to the personal felt, to me, too distant. The big reveal — that what seem to be flashbacks to Louise’s daughter Hannah and her early death are in fact flashforwards, and that Louise chooses to conceive her daughter in the full knowledge of what lies ahead — should be emotionally overwhelming. But we never have a strong sense of Hannah. She is a figure of fragmentary moments, little more than a plot device. Thus, I recognize intellectually the import of Louise’s decision, but experience it at one remove. It is the difference between “that is moving” and “that would be moving.” Interstellar, which shares Arrival‘s time looping (which I didn’t like it any better in that film) is a messier movie than Arrival, but its parent-child relationship is moving because both characters are present for the audience. Hannah is hardly more present for us than Sandra Bullock’s dead daughter in Gravity.

The conclusion also leaves us with the problem of the film’s deterministic universe. Though Louise does ask Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) if he would do anything differently if he could live his life over (or words to that effect), there is very little sense in Arrival that the future can be altered. Since we believe the scenes with Hannah are in the past, we experience the future as the past. Louise tells Hannah she is “unstoppable,” and so, it would appear, she is. There is no free will in this universe. Everything is set in stone. This article argues that free will here consists in fully embracing the choices we are always already destined to make, and while I find this a convincing reading of the film’s thesis, I also find that thesis a problem. It supports the film’s optimism only in the case that the choices are positive ones. But are we, then, to congratulate those who fully embrace their choice to do harm?

In the end, then, Arrival left me unsatisfied with regards to its narrative and thematic conclusions. Yet, to complete my own loop, I remain glad I saw it. I may not agree with it, but I was invigorated by our conversation.

  1. jsebastian says:

    Really great article, David. Do you ever share your thoughts on any film sites?

    • Thanks! I haven’t yet, but have been mulling the idea over, as I have at least one piece that’s not intended for academic journals, but much more involved than a blog post. So we’ll see.

      • jsebastian says:

        What’s the post about? If you’re interested in having any of your works promoted on, shoot me an email and we can make it happen!

      • Hey thanks! It’s a look at the literary and cinematic roots of the New French Extreme. It might be a bit on the long side for moviepilot, though, at 4K. And given that I’m an academic, that might put me outside the sort of writers you’re hoping to give a platform to?

      • jsebastian says:

        Not at all. Our platform is for any writers who want to share original ideas and engage with a larger audience. If you’d like to give it a try and see if it’s something for you feel free to write me an email with any questions you have.

  2. Janice says:

    Very interesting article. I would only disagree in that when I learned about Hannah in Arrival and that Ryan Stone of Gravity had a dead child, I felt an instant stab of pain. Even though as you say we don’t get to know Hannah very well, and we never see Ryan’s child, it still hurt me, for them and their parents. I can’t agree that it was distant because I felt it.