© 2017 by James Clark
In Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi classic, Space Odyssey (1968), one earthling, Dave, leverages his involvement in the American space program to strike up a unique and fertile relationship with a black monolith juke-box-resembling tower emitting unearthly music for the sake of an inter-species choir of lucid and ardent sensibilities. 48 years later, along comes filmmaker, Denis Villeneuve, from Quebec Canada (a place not even very good at streetcars), with a film, Arrival (2016)—also about inter-species progress—which, for the most part, exceeds expectations. Kubrick did have his Old Testament David; but unequivocally, the point was surpassing conventional relentment. What, on the other hand, are we to make of, after nearly two hours of thrilling headway, the Frank Capra denouement? Does the crashingly out of place designation, “Abbott and Costello,” for the pair of aliens they are tasked to make sense of, by a military physicist (as apparently likewised amused on the part of the protagonist, Louise, a top-notch linguistics scholar), constitute a word to the wise that, though some remnants of an obsolete world still hang around, you are welcome to regard Louise’s “triumph” as part of a vivid reverie centering upon the death from cancer of her teenaged daughter?
Arrival, with its family-guests’ connotation of a title, is definitely sci-fi with a difference. Rather than show off the latest in deadly weapons, wielded by adventurers having been bitten by the adventurism bug since before Kindergarten, we have a central character startlingly indifferent to the day’s Breaking News that (an ecclesiastically 12) alien space ships have positioned themselves across the globe. As a teacher in a university lecture hall bemused that few students had shown up that day, she is put into the loop by one of the few faithful on hand, asking her to activate the high definition media screen to see something of compelling interest. Louise, realizing that she will not be able to get across that day the account of the peculiarities of the Portuguese language and its exceptionally fostering the art of communication, rather non-chummily intones, “Class is dismissed.” What, from her perspective, has upstaged the sensation of the century? What has impelled her to return to the ghost town of a campus next morning and drink it all in how singular she is (anticipating from the invaders either tedious violence or, at best, more of the sluggishness in her face delivered by planet Earth). Along the way, she assures her frantic mother that she has become over-excited. “Mom, please don’t watch that channel! You know they’re all idiots!”In the aura of a presumably horrific eventuation on the horizon, eclipsing the viewer’s focus on her, Louise’s being out of step is, if ever spotlighted, not merely personally bizarre but a disposition of remoteness toward human history far too gripping to ever (ever—as in that ending) turn around on a dime and become just another sentimental thrill-seeker. Miss this step and you’ve missed the movie—a film about aliens whom the protagonist comes to realize to be far closer to where she lives than the bulk of her species. This is what is truly important about this “thriller;” and this is what we’ll follow in detail.
Arrival does not introduce at first anything at all sci-fi. Bathed in a haze of stifling emotion, what we regard are modest but unforgettable highlights of her brief mutual education in sensibility, in the company of her daughter. Perhaps an indication that Louise’s researches about language have informed her to an intense emotionality, is the degree whereby she embraces her daughter as a sprite from whom to learn. At any rate, she connects this haunting measure of equilibrium with the declaration, “I used to think time works in obvious, one-way progression… Now I see it doesn’t work like it did when you’re so bound to time’s order…” Trailing out from the credits (and its melancholy cello passage), there are the joys of infant love and its capacity to clear away preoccupations—preoccupations, for instance, of a dazzling career as a world-renowned scholar—entanglements, however, rendering invalid, for most of us, that sensual bite so easily unseen and underestimated. The vignette rolls on to the hospital and the now-adolescent (one-way thrust) being examined; and there is Louise in another voice-over: “I’m not sure I believe in beginnings and endings…” [which is to say, doubting the normal discernment of getting things done can get really important things done]. Well into her forced involvement in the news of the day, she recalls kissing her daughter lying in her hospital bed just after she has succumbed to that mortality so central to the entire story.
The more you dig into the unspoken network of demanding films, the more resources you have to tackle their considerations. And the more pithy and amusing ironies you have on tap. On that Day Two, Louise’s is the only PC alight in all of academe; but she can’t resist checking in on the warfare to come, joining (somewhat) the world-wide deathwatch. Her privacy is invaded by a figure we’ve seen before in dire straits. The actor, Forest Whitaker, rather gracelessly invades her office, replicating the home-invasion penchant of his Ghost Dog, the contract killer, in the eponymous Jim Jarmusch film. Ghost Dog opts for suicide. We’ll see how Louise behaves under pressure. Now employed as an military hero in the cause of Homeland Security, he arrives on the basis of her having not so long ago been helpful in clearing up a threat requiring expertise in Farsi. Her greeting him with, “Why are you here?” finds her less than gratified about recalling that triumph inasmuch as she has clearly changed (or intensified a long-simmering direction) since those days. He needs her smarts as a translator to make contact with the inhabitants of a 1500-foot craft hovering near the ground in the wilds of Montana. Despite her being underwhelmed by this challenge, she does sustain some level of public viability; and therefore, though she might welcome his reverting to suicide mode, she couches her displeasure in standard civility.“I don’t know what I can do in this…” The talent scout retreats, and just as she is about to lose her standing as a consultant she can’t resist keeping a rival ambitioning from Berkeley firmly positioned as second best. Next morning she’s wakened by a noisy chopper landing on her view; and Montana is next.
As she accompanies Whittaker’s Colonel Weber in a Black Hawk chopper headed for a hyper-public scene which she has hyper-personalized, the sounds of ground zero, collected by the government in the early going (an even earlier version in the ghost-town office—rattle and rush—having piqued her labor of love and prompted her to say, “I need to be there” [to be effective]) remind us of the calls and cries of whales, vigorous and melancholy. To those of us who have traced the importance of Jarmusch’s idiom of candid beasts, this prelude should anticipate a rendezvous for the sake of a mysterious form of language.
The trip to Montana introduces the extent of our protagonist’s ability to maintain her hard-won non-linear sense of time in face of careerist, survival and patriotic pressures. Also joining the problem-solving caravan is Ian, the Abbott and Costello fan, who first addresses her with a quotation from the Preface of one of her books— “Language is the foundation of civilization”—a not entirely respectful meet-up. Being an astrophysicist means expecting to have practitioners of lesser (small and soft) disciplines letting the prince or princess of knowledge have the final, presumably most comprehensive, last word. His second step, still dripping with hubris, is to note that mathematics is the real deal, a gesture in the spirit of a top gun patting his pistol in a confrontation with a mere brute. Louise, apparently distracted by the bureaucratic grandeur all around, which allows her to live in that cool house, awkwardly passes off her estimation of language as logos (origination) to be a marketing strategy of leading with showy but flimsy sizzle. The relation-to-come of these two is tangled and misleading to astronomical lengths; and because it is secondary to the discoveries deriving from precincts not having been crippled by an ascetic, calculating planetary culture, we should anticipate like this the boy-meets-girl showy but flimsy sizzle in order to focus upon what this remarkable film has to offer.
Just before touching down, and while being washed over by the fervent sounds of the visitors, Louise catches a glimpse of the tower of mystery in its massive powers and, while shrouded in mist, strikingly delicate, a gigantic black leaf. In some crazy way, this has brought her back to her true mojo. There is a contact allowance at the craft every 18 hours, and in their initial confrontation with its two-entity crew (on either side of a transparent wall recalling an aquarium), a crew in the form of huge mastodons with seven prominent arms, Louise is frightened but mesmerised and Ian says, “Holy shit!” As you might imagine she goes solo in her interactions with the strange speakers who begin to send out her way loud reverberations, she being a singularly promising hostess with a readable body language. Back at the base camp, she asks the former Ghost Dog, “Am I fired?”The stickler for ceremony and a sucker for wishful thinking tells her, “You’re better than the last” [seen carried off with a heart attack]. He adds (being a rather unlikely exponent of the arcane), “Not everybody can process this experience.” (Scenes of panic and looting punctuate the unusually closer encounter with the unknown.) And she will find that tribute very welcome inasmuch as she had almost fainted during the stress of the first couple of encounters; and, moreover, that Ian, though incapable of seeing her as an equal, does respect nerve. In fact, Ian vomits after the first close-up; and it is Louise’s initiative, after her first reflections on the mystery, to take off her burka-like flaming orange hazmat protective covering in order to strike up a closer rapport (he only following suit in a subsequent interview, after the contamination fright had been faced down by her). Also germane to the scale of courage paramount here, there is a cut to a TV news broadcast revealing that a religious cult in North Dakota has self-immolated in concluding that the deus ex machina of their creed has come to pass.
She then commences with a sign, reading HUMAN, by which to mime designations, a visual, sensuous basis of interaction with creatures she had never imagined meeting but has already, in her doleful, transient past, been convinced, regardless of the variations, of sensibility destined to death. There she is, with her hitch-hiker message, looking for a lift from long-term travellers puzzling the planet about an intent which she has an idea she knows.(The back story, buzzing for officialdom and the hoi polio alike, is the sci-fi cliché and meal-ticket of imperial invasion. But Louise, alone, can imagine another wave of arrival, a process she has, no doubt, already found amidst the works of those mostly dead and entirely unreachable earthling-exceptions to the rule. This, then, would, amongst other firsts, be her first direct soulmates.)
On the basis of this orientation, Louise brings to the fore a sharing between the two huge creatures and herself, a sharing which unfolds as an exploration of physical sensibility. Accordingly, there is her presence in its true skin and contours. “They need to see me!” The response to this gambit (making no sense to Ian, because of his death grip upon a culture of ascetic, mechanistic predictability) is prompt and startling. From one of those trunk-like appendages (arms) a star-shaped “hand” appears and emits into the atmosphere of the dwelling a black tincture which rapidly forms a circle, both perfect and scrambly irregular, geometrically smooth and marked by a rich texture of jagged, organic incident. Louise’s startlement soon produces a slight tincture of a smile. She ponders the primal hardness and harshness of that star-hand, reaching out closely to the transparent boundary. Her introducing herself had been met by the figure’s introducing itself. And then she smiles more fully. She places her hand upon the intervening surface and says, “I am Louise…” The figures leave and she evokes the figure of the lost daughter. She spends a long night examining that ring having been recorded by the team backing up those two mutually distant experts. (At this juncture, Ian comes up with Abbott and Costello. And she, anything for a meeting of minds, says, “I like it!” He detects a mathematical approach in her engaging the primal communicative factors. She tells him, “I will take that as a compliment.” She adds, along his flow of faint praise, and in her problematical sense of antithesis to his widely-respected dotage, “You can understand communication and still end up single.”) In studying a battery of those circular productions as the days go by, her method in fact approaches the dynamics of art appreciation (with calculus a poor second). Ian will eventually survey a more complex composition to come up with the arrival being structured in terms of units on the basis of one of twelve. But all the real headway and heartbreak come from her. (His frustrated question, “Are they scientists or tourists?” paints a far from comprehensive sense of the possibilities of this engagement.) “If they’re scientists, they ask remarkably few questions,” he sniffs pedantically. As Louise’s approach increasingly proves, something quite different from asking good questions, amounting to good etiquette, is in the air. One of the frequent reveries surfacing during her sleep-deprived stint, about her daughter—so gone and not forgotten—sees the child having a caterpillar (in silhouette) with pronouncedly primal physical features confidently moving along her hand. In another glimpse, Louise tells her, “It’s OK to be sad…” In another play-back from the front, she recalls the hospital and putting a sheet over the girl’s dead body.
In the meantime, bulletins about the Chinese and their sphere of influence opting for suspicion and a war-footing toward the ominous giants carry a threat to Louise’s hope beyond hope. (The Chinese researchers had used a board game to induce some sense from the newcomers—with little success. As in Space Odyssey, the arts-forward arrivals do not reward geeks.) Her interpretations reach a point where the palpable exchange of names takes place in an overall trajectory of the closing of the ring being a factor of one consisting of a twoness by way of describing that primordial motion intrinsic to the strangers’ integrity. Threatening the entire negotiation, is the seeming priority coming to pass of the sense of “weapon” being a focus of these relationships in both Montana and China. Louise, intuiting that the premium on self-assertion has more to do with a tool than a weapon, ups the ante by once again touching the barrier and being met with the star-hand rapping the boundary, right there with her. Then there is a spree of circular forms, an exuberance redolent of affection. The details of that expression may not be fully comprehended; but the energies devoted to communion are transparent. Those political powers-that-be, however, feeling nothing resembling communion, have, on the other hand, commenced a military action which extends to Montana. And, with that, the two giants repair to the more secure part of the craft, the repercussion of their haste rocketing Louise and Ian backwards at great speed.
Though she has received a concussion in that theatre of weaponry, and the craft has lifted off to a few hundred feet in the air and adopted a horizontal disposition, Louise continues her endeavors to stay in touch with her friends. With preparations underway to evacuate the camp, Ian gets ready to talk himself out of his job. “It’s going to take years” [to get to the bottom of that lighthearted spree]. One point in the tableau of circles does come readily across. Both agree that there are time signals: making sense to her as more non-linear hints (“many become one”) in hopes that someone will do the right thing; making sense to Ian, we can be sure, in terms of lead-pipe linearity.
Louise is clearly perceived, by those targets of military action, as doing the right thing. And, in approaching their distanced craft, she finds a shuttle form, enters, and with much turbulence comes face to face with but one creature (“Abbott” having died in the military’s preliminary gambit). “I’m sorry… We’re sorry…” [her latter remark being somehow bureaucratically ill-conceived]. The main tendencies of the extra-terrestrials now clear to her as coming down to a situation of urgent intelligibility (with the narrative now covering the interaction with sub-titles), she makes a bid to develop that intimacy into a public communication. “I want you to communicate something to the other sites: ‘Louise has the weapon.’” That eleventh-hour thumbs up is what she wants this foreign legion to appreciate as a gain which can’t be destroyed, despite terrible odds. On the crest of this mutual understanding that the “weapon”/ “tool” and its circular presence has a hope, her surviving guest in Montana enunciates what she has well known all along: “We help humanity…” And then there is an added touch, with much trepidation: “In 3000 years… We need humanity to help…” This last interview ends with her sense of the look of 3000 years ahead: new practitioners of the circle of augmenting the creative thrust as simultaneously augmenting the ways of others (who might also touch off circles of their own). She loses that contact forever, losing her bearings and being dropped amidst troops firing upon “Costello.” Ian catches her before her fainting spell becomes another trip from the front to a hospital. She recalls calling her vanished daughter “unstoppable”—a way of rallying her as a fragile person; and a way of invoking her hopes as a creator of carnal energy.
The concussion, the lack of sleep and the intensity of her dialogue with someone very near and dear, evoke from Louise a bizarre entrance into the rest of her life. “I just realize what happened to me,” is her declaration while being held by a far more rested Ian. Thus transpires a narrative shell game whereby she is seen (vastly improbably) becoming galvanized to effect cessation of a world-wide take-down of the invaders. She is seen purloining the mission director’s phone, calling up the trigger-happy Chinese honcho and turning the tide in truly old-timey fashion. This delusion-blender (“China is standing down!”)—flying in the face of visuals whereby the giant crafts are being blown out of the skies—moves ahead to moot Louise’s falling in love with Ian and living happily ever after. Part concussion, part fatigue? Then, to crown her worse-half, day-from-hell, there is the day-dream of her being revered by the grateful Chinese tyrant at a United Nations festivity. “You changed my mind” [by melodramatically whispering his dying wife’s final words]. She brings along her Nobel-Prize-level magnum opus (based on recent experience [the long-term reflection lacking boss bona fides]), titled, The Universal Language (what, in fact, were it a real deal, virtually no one on planet Earth would use). She mumbles into this fog, “The weapon is the language… to see what’s to come!” With this formerly discreet free-fall becoming silent again, the world stabilizes for a bit, and she’s back in her living room, looking over the lake-view and tasting a glass of wine. A nebulous instance of Ian appears along her lakefront, morphing into the father of her second child. We hear the commencement, “Do you want to make a baby?”/ “Yes,” she hears herself saying. Here we must also put into the mix her being propped up by Ian after the shooting gets heavy. They embrace, seemingly with affection; but the film shot is presented to emphasize the gloom and isolation on her face, amidst a military and technological triumph.
Arrival not only evokes a largely overlooked opportunity and a largely overlooked dilemma, provocatively and brilliantly constructed, but it leaves us with an elegant constellation consisting of keywords to concentrate a readily unravelling crisis. We see her pointing out to that short-lived daughter that her name, “Hannah,” is a palindrome, wherein the notation covers the same presence approached forward and backwards. What she does not go into but has conveyed indirectly to us is her having a rather long-term concentration upon and delight in a process of necessary and continual ebb and flow of intent, an endless, spiralling retracing of one’s steps, a circularity consisting of the same identity from either impetus. A slightly older version of the same light of Louisa’s life asks her (concerning a homework assignment) about a word to cover a transaction where there could be competing motives which might come down to benefits for both parties. After intervening episodes of that play of competing motives in Montana, there is coverage of Louise’s eventually coming up with the mot juste, “zero sum.”At first blush, we might wonder how that expression of cut-throat competition (namely, “Whatever is gained by one side is lost by the other…;one side can’t win unless the other loses; …When losses are subtracted from gains, the sum is zero.”) could be construed as gain for both contestants. But, though routed in her hallucinatory retreat at the last moments we see her, Louise has shown enough heart to attain to a return to her real career, her real professionalism wherein transactions between the ponderous and the deft may prove illuminative for both sides; and, where the going becomes ridiculous—as it may often do—the skies can pretty much be the limit, until fruitful transactions re-emerge. The final keyword, “unstoppable,” describes the warrior resilience that makes the world go round.
These notions vigorously and poignantly touch upon our protagonist’s real state of affairs in the aftermath of what was probably the highlight of her life. The zero-sum eventuation during her consultative stint discloses pretty much all loss, to her hopes that circular language (logos) might see the light of day, and all gain to the forces of linear business as usual. We leave her flirting with a fantasy she’ll soon rid herself of. She’ll have her lakeside sanctuary. She’ll have her career the heart of which will be as attentively responded to as that of Ian (or her ex, whose anger about unscientific behavior she glosses over in telling her daughter, “It was my fault…”)