Welcome back to Sound Off!, a semi-regular column where members of Speculative Chic gather together to chat about the latest BIG THING in entertainment. This time, we’ve landed on the blog to chat about Arrival, which premiered in the U.S. on Friday, November 11th, 2016.
Sound Off! is meant to be a group of reactions, but not necessarily a review. After all, while we are all individuals, even mutual love of something (or hate) can come from different places. You may find everything from critique to fangirling to maybe even hate-watching, but it’s safe to say that if you haven’t yet seen Arrival and you read this post, you WILL be spoiled in some form or fashion.
Now, join J.L. Gribble, Carey, Tez, and Shara as they talk about Arrival!
J.L. Gribble: Part of me worried that Arrival would feel like a rip-off of the 1997 film Contact, but after seeing both, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Though there are many similarities to the films, I would instead propose Arrival as a spiritual successor to Contact for a new generation.
Both are science fiction films set in a world with our current level of technology that deal with first contact with alien life. Both feature female protagonists who are recognized as scientific intellectuals. Both are based on stories originally featured in literary form. However, while moments in Contact are intriguing and climactic, Arrival had me more tense in my theater seat than most science-fiction spectacles filled with combat and mayhem.
I recently credited Doctor Strange with being a visually stunning film. In contrast, how the camera consistently returns to frame the glass wall in Louise’s house in Arrival resonated with me just as much as the overtly CGI kaleidoscopic effects of Doctor Strange, proving that “spectacle” does not have to be accomplished through technology alone. With very few obvious special effects outside of the spaceships, spaceship interiors, and aliens themselves, Arrival uses pure cinematography to present visuals just as engaging.
Even as I was sucked into the first contact storyline, I was still annoyed throughout the first half of the film of how Louise was consistently returned to the role of “mother” even while doing such strong work as a scientist. The reveal at the end of the film mitigated some of this irritation, and a significant amount of the symbolism certainly moved me, but I still wish an effort had been made to portray Louise’s “other life” in a less stereotypical manner. In addition, I’d like to note that out of the four Sound Off! contributions I’ve made so far for Speculative Chic, none of the films have passed the Bechdel Test for female characters.
Is Arrival still worth seeing, despite the problems I just mentioned? Absolutely. As much as I love my superhero and space battle movies, I’m pretty sure this will turn out to be my favorite science fiction offering of 2016.
Carey: Arrival is what I wanted Interstellar to be but it wasn’t and I’m glad, because now I have Arrival and it could have only have been done this way. Arrival is a true jewel among science fiction films, one that does its source, Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang, proud. At first glance it’s an invasion story, but it turns out to be about communication: human to alien, society to society, human to human. It’s eerily quiet, but visually stunning; its focus is on the characters and on the storytelling — and the story structure. Arrival shares its intellectualism and scientific curiosity with 1997’s Contact; Amy Adams’s Louise Banks is a confident linguist just as Jodie Foster’s Ellie Arroway was a focused, driven scientist. Adams’s quiet, emotional performance drives the film; the script relegates the men to a supporting cast. At no point does anyone try to take over Banks’s duties; although her abilities are questioned because of her proximity to the aliens with whom she is attempting to communicate, she isn’t mansplained; her emotions are seen as assets, not obstacles; no one blocks her path because she’s a woman. Director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario) expertly unspools the fishing line of the story right up to the revelation, performs a gentle catch (perhaps too gentle for the payoff, but more about that below), then slowly reels the line back in. I shared the audience’s slight disappointment with the ultimate revelation; a crowd used to the CGI bluster of big films may feel let down. Ted Chiang is phenomenal at crafting stories that turn on small gifts, and this may not always translate well to the screen. But Villeneuve’s thinkpiece is a must-see (and Ted Chiang is a must-read). Thinkpieces such as Ex Machina, Contact, Solaris, and Primer, among many others, are redefining the intersection of science fiction with cinema — they are the films and stories that both haunt and inspire us long after the theater experience is over, and I, for one, am already enjoying being haunted.
Tez: I had my doubts for Arrival due to a (later corrected) geographically-inaccurate promotional poster that showed a Shanghai landmark in Hong Kong. But the story takes place in Montana, with only quick flicks to other locations via TV news.
The transition from ordinary to extraordinary happens in short scenes early on, until learning to communicate with and understand the aliens is all that linguist Dr Louise Banks lives and dreams. But as she learns more, the less I understood as a viewer. From the American team barely understanding one message to conversing via printouts, this jump seems glossed over and abrupt. Probably because learning to communicate is the slowest part of the film, so it skips ahead to some action.
Arrival, as a whole, seemingly dismantles xenophobia but in other ways perpetuates it. A faction of the U.S. military sends up an explosive device to attack the aliens. Negative stereotypes abound with rioting in Venezuela, China going offline, and then Russia also being secretive. That old trope of “English-language countries are good, other countries are evil” is disappointing, but I suppose the story needed a big-action conflict other than the obvious aliens.
It’s weird how I can suspend disbelief for aliens arriving on Earth, but the issues involving time are too much for me as a viewer. Most confusing are Louise’s two conversations with General Shang, and either the film doesn’t explain well enough or I’m not smart enough to understand. Also, some Mandarin goes untranslated, but maybe that’s a bonus for Chinese audiences.
Great to see a role for Tzi Ma, whom I know as the voice of Bàba on American Dad. And for a non-Aussie, Julian Casey does a serviceable job as an Australian scientist, though the accent doesn’t quite ring true — that distracted me a little, which made me I read up on the actor at IMDb after watching the film.
The movie’s messages are clear: Learn to communicate instead of being quick to violence. Work with each other instead of against each other. But the first hurdle: wanting to understand and empathize with another point of view, instead of just wanting the other to understand and empathize with you.
Overall, I quite liked the film, but I still have many questions. (And who knew being a college professor earned enough to afford that gorgeous lake-house?) I give Arrival four out of five stars, and wish there was a novelization (rather than just the original novella) to fill in what I don’t know.
P.S. The soundtrack is available for streaming on Spotify.
Shara: Stunned. That’s how I felt when the end credits started to roll for Arrival. Simply stunned. I knew, going into the film, that I’d like it: too many people I trusted had googly-eyes over this movie, and the trailer alone looked like it was made for me. And I’ve always wanted to read Ted Chiang’s work; I’d even received the short story collection, Stories of Your Life and Others for my birthday this year, but I held off reading it because I knew I wanted to see this movie and I didn’t want to compare the source material to the adaptation.
I’m so glad I chose to wait. The film is a quiet one, ripe with tension that just builds and builds, especially at the beginning when the ships have appeared and no one knows what’s happening. The chaos that ensues worldwide feels so real, so visceral, it almost hurts, and I had no trouble imagining what I’d be doing if this event were happening for real.
What pulled me in was the emotional resonance and weight of Amy Adams’ performance. A clearly intelligent woman, not easily swayed by any man, able to stand up for herself and her ability without coming off as desperate, without coming off like a bitch. And I loved how, when the weight of her grief seemed to pull her under, she was able to use it to go forward, which in hindsight is kind of ironic.
Arrival utilizes one of my absolute favorite story structures, but to say what that structure is would be a spoiler in and of itself, so I won’t do it, save to say that one of my favorite Ursula K. Le Guin books also uses it, and I’ve loved the structure ever since. And this film uses it to powerful effect. So powerful, in fact, that as the climax was happening and the final pieces of the puzzle were falling into place, my mind was racing. I was putting it all together while also admiring all the subtle work that’d gone into making it happen in the first place. And by the very end, seeing the choices that have been made and knowing the why they’ve been made, it’s both beautiful and heartbreaking at the same time. I wish I could say more, but to do so would be to rob you of that first experience of viewing it, and trust me, this is one you don’t want to spoil.
And that’s it from our contributors! Did you see Arrival? What were YOUR thoughts?