|Original caricature by Jeff York of Amy Adams in ARRIVAL (copyright 2016)|
Sometimes a film stands in tandem with the times, so prescient in its relevance to what’s going on in the world that it stops being mere entertainment and becomes something utterly profound. Such is the case with the film ARRIVAL that opened just this weekend. After a week that was one of the most dramatic and troubling in our nation’s history, ARRIVAL enters theaters as not just an elixir to soothe what ails us, but should be seen as a must-see essay about how words matter. And words in this post-election are hugely important. We cannot heal and we will not move forward without the right words.
ARRIVAL is one of those films where you don’t want to give away too much of the plot to those who’ve not seen it, thus I must be careful with my words here. Part of the thrill of this movie are its surprises, those twists and turns that await you during its hour and 56-minute running time. What I can tell you is that the film is an adaptation of Ted Chiang’s award-winning 1998 novella “Story of Your Life.” His story concerns Dr. Louise Banks, played by Amy Adams in another Oscar worthy performance, and her efforts to help the world communicate with alien visitors. Banks is a professor of linguistics, an expert who has helped out the government before, so they come calling again during this great time of need. Indeed, 12 spaceships have entered the earth’s atmosphere and are now hovering over various parts of the planet. Why are they here? What do they want? We need to ask them, but we need to know how. After some early communication attempts lead nowhere, the military all but drafts her to help them find a way to reach common ground with the visitors.
Banks knows all sorts of languages and symbols but deciphering the aliens’ strange mix of smoky emulsions they emit, mixed in with a strange cacophony of noises, will demand her best. She needs to crack the alien code to prevent potential war as no one knows if they come in peace or intend to turn mankind into pieces. Helping her with all this are physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), as well as a few military types you’d expect to show up in science fiction movies. One is the tough and by-the-book Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker). The other is CIA agent Halpern, a man whose motives seems ambiguous and vaguely sinister. It doesn’t help that Michael Stuhlberg is playing him. He’s a fine actor but he’s played an awful lot of nervous nellies in his career.
Louise and Ian meet the aliens by being transported through the long, narrow passageway into the body of their ship hovering over the plains of Montana. And when they meet them, they are hardly the cuddly E.T. types. Instead, they resemble those spindly, octopus-like creatures from Steven Spielberg’s 2005 remake of WAR OF THE WORLDS. Looking at them, they don’t seem particularly cordial. Nor are their groans and gurgles warm, inviting sounds. Even their written 'words' seem utterly intimidating, shooting out of their alien paws at the observers like squid ink. They seem menacing, but are they?
One of the marvels of this movie, so carefully penned by screenwriter Eric Heisserer and shrewdly directed by Denis Villenueve (“Prisoners”, “Sicario”) is that for most of the film, we don’t know if they’re friend or foe. By coming here, and trying patiently to communicate with us, we assume they’re on our side, but until Louise can figure out just how to communicate with them, everyone in the film, as well as in the audience, remains in the dark.
It makes for a great and tense film experience, as we watch Louise and her crew keep putting themselves in harm's way as they try to engage the aliens in conversation. Eventually, their efforts start to make a difference and some of the pieces of the communications puzzle start to come together. But at every moment, it's pretty frightening as one wrong gesture, or a misinterpreted word could doom their efforts and possibly even start a war. That seems all too possible when the Chinese start to lose patience with the slow communications and develop an itchy trigger finger. Soon enough, other countries start to feel the same and their fears spread across the globe. Of course it isn’t long before America feels compelled to start saber rattling as well.
As missiles and warships are moved into place from a number of countries and aimed at those huge, black egg-like alien vessels, Louise faces what's known in the screenwriting industry as the ticking clock. Will she figure out what the aliens are trying to tell us in the nick of time and stave off war? Or will she communicate the wrong things to them and end up pushing them away and leaving our orbit forever? A missed opportunity to learn from them is as potentially catastrophic as a battle to the death. The words she will use to communicate now carry the weight of the world on them, and time is running out. Her words, any words, have never mattered more in the history of the planet in this film's story.
Watching it play out, one cannot help but think about how catastrophic words have been in this election. And seeing the purveyor of most of that horrendous verbiage win the White House has given many pause, here in the USA as well as throughout the world. Words matter, but for a candidate who delighted in being very loose with his words, as well as disparaging with them, it has now less half the electorate fearing how his words will turn into action. Half the country didn't vote for him, and he didn't secure the popular vote, but he took the electoral college. And now his words have everyone, even his supporters, wondering how true to them he will be. His words matter, and like Louise's words in the movie, they can now be used to create good or yes, create war. And not just on foreigners. Never have so many factions of the electorate felt like they were as despised as any enemy by our president-elect.
ARRIVAL has other themes it gets across dramatically and emphatically as well. In addition to the importance of words, it has a lot to say about globalization. Louise’s conversation with the aliens does not come to full fruition until she realizes that the aliens are speaking as a whole from the 12 vessels. Each spacecraft is important to their overall communication, an intrinsic part of the puzzle. And in order to respond properly to the aliens, Louise discovers that she must put together all that they are saying. It’s like a treasure map with missing pieces in the parchment. She really can’t find whatever 'gold' they've got unless the whole thing is read as a whole.
Not only does Louise realize she needs to put all of the 12 together, but she also recognizes that she needs all of the communications being bandied about by the other countries in their communication efforts with the aliens to help string together her best messaging as well. She has to get out of her bubble, her singular world of what they’re doing with the spaceship hovering over Montana, in order to see the bigger picture. The input from the other nations is vital as what she is doing, as is that collective messaging from all 12 spaceships. Thus, once again, ARRIVAL serves as a timely metaphor for what we've just gone through during this election cycle. Too many people are living in their bubble, be it Fox News, Salon.com, or wherever they choose to get the information that best fits their world view. Accurate or not, too many who live in such bubbles think their reality is the right one. Often it isn't. ARRIVAL argues that a more thorough collection of data is needed to function.
From a global economy to the Internet to preserving the planet, we are no longer isolated and cannot act like our small worlds are the only ones we have a vested interest in. Everything is connected. Louise must reach out to others and avidly seek their assistance to find the answers to her critical communications with alien life. And the film suggests to those watching it that we could all stand to get out of our heads more too.
And ultimately, what the aliens communicate to her when it all comes together is quite the doozy of a twist. It is incredibly profound and moving. And it forces us to reconsider much of what we've seen presented to us in the movie. We've accepted so much of it at face value. But that twists informs us that time, events and emotions are more fluid than at first imagined. It may appear to be linear, but that is not necessarily so. Again, the need for everything to be so tight and easy and selfish is discredited. The bigger picture, one that the aliens provide mankind on earth, needs to be looked upon with fresh eyes, an open mind and a willingness to step outside of ourselves, our comfort zones and yes indeed, our bubbles. It’s an intellectual space adventure, if you will, that invites comparisons to 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. That's how smart it is. I don’t want to say anything more about it. You’ll just have to see how mind-blowing it is for yourself if you haven't yet.
Still, its galvanizing message of learning to communicate better with no matter who you're trying to connect with cannot be missed. And in light of this week, it’s particularly relevant. Isolation and refusing to deal with a proper dialogue with whomever the “other” may be, is a way of conversing we cannot afford anymore. There are simply too many folks out in the nation of ours talking without thinking, and thinking without concern for what they're saying and how it may be affecting others.
Hillary Clinton may very well have lost the election by living in the Democratic bubble and telling herself that all was well, that she'd win all those rust belt states because Democrats always do. But her losses to populist Bernie Sanders during the primary season in states like Wisconsin and Michigan should have been red flags to her campaign. Did the DNC ever consider spending time and money visiting those states? If they had before the last days of the election, HRC might've secured the votes of those working class constituents there rather than seeing them sit out or show up to vote for Trump.
And those casting their ballots for Trump may think they were merely voting to “drain the swamp”, but their candidate’s incendiary language did a lot of damage. His voters are also living in a bubble if they think their vote was just about sticking it to the ruling class. Their vote stuck it to a lot of women, a lot of minorities, a lot of Muslims, and even the handicapped as Trump ridiculed all of them over and over again in his run with a relish of vile language. If any Trump voter thinks such words are not connected to his endorsement from the KKK, then they are deep, deep inside a self-imposed, isolated bubble.
It’s time to burst such bubbles, and Trump must now start using words to heal and bring the nation together. An apology or two, or a hundred for that matter, would be a very good start. If not, he may find that most of the nation doesn't want to go along with his efforts, just as most of them didn't vote for him, and he will accomplish a lot less than he could with bipartisanship. His words matter, as do his actions, especially how and if they link to his worst language.
That’s why the film ARRIVAL strikes so powerfully. The film entertains yes, but it compels us to understand communication on a different level, a level where words can have real consequences. For good or bad.
Perhaps our new leader will see this movie and be moved and enlightened. Or maybe he’ll just continuing his practice of tweeting hateful words about all his rivals on Twitter in the middle of the night. But make no mistake about the message of ARRIVAL - we’re all in this together. And important events demand well concerned language. That message couldn’t be any more obvious or more timely than it is this week.