Wednesday, February 22, 2017

"Dazzle Them with the Basics" or Trouble with Tralfamadorians: My Thoughts on "Arrival"

"Dazzle Them with the Basics" or Trouble with Tralfamadorians: My Thoughts on Arrival

Image taken from IMDB

 In 2012, I studied to teach English as a foreign language. Near the end of the course, we had a segment on culture where we participated in a group exercise. Group 1 were assigned to play tourists trying to buy sandals on a ten minute layover. Group 2 were English-speaking locals who A) viewed contact with the ground as a form of spiritual purity, and B) had no equivalent of a question form. I was in Group 3, which tried to interpret what was going on. Neither of the first two groups knew what the other one had been assigned (and us in Group 3 were ignorant of both).

As you can imagine, a bizarre scene followed, where many assumptions were made. During the debriefing after, we discussed how culture intersects with language. I thought back on this exercise when I was watching the 2016 film Arrival, which hearkens back to the roots of sci-fi film by focusing on the philosophical implications of an alien encounter rather than fast ships and loud explosions. You can tell a lot of love and creativity went into this project. It's well shot, well acted, suspenseful. And it works...mostly.

First, the positive. The aliens are the breakout stars of this movie. Unearthly, mysterious, and inscrutable, they still manage to be immensely likable. I found myself rooting for them (and at one point fearing for their safety) as much as I did for the human characters. Considering they have no faces and barely anything resembling dialog, on top of looking like something out of a Lovecraftian nightmare, that's quite a movie-making accomplishment.

It's refreshing to see an alien movie that focuses on the alienness--that feeling of smallness and helplessness that comes with encountering something totally beyond the frame of human experience. The aliens in Arrival aren't hostile; they don't want to eat us or blow up our planet. All the conflict in the story derives from the aliens' otherness: the struggle to comprehend what may not be comprehensible and the accompanying descent into fear and paranoia.

There's good suspense leading up the the reveal of the aliens. The movie takes its time even revealing what the ship looks like, and when you finally do see it...The design and cinematography made me really wish I had seen this movie on the big screen. The characters are in the dark as well, right up to the point where they take their stomach-churning first step onto the gravity-defying ship. It's implied the last guy to talk to the aliens went mad, and you can believe it.

Anything involving the aliens and their esoteric language is not screen time wasted.

Our human characters are compelling as well. Amy Adams carries the story with her intelligence, her tenacity, and her vulnerability. She can be afraid and overwhelmed, but she also takes calculated risks--such as removing her hazmat suit so that the aliens ("Heptapods" because of their seven legs) can see her in the flesh. She's professional, but she also gives pushback to her superiors from the military when their methods get in the way of her doing her job.

Jeremy Renner also gives a solid performance as a skeptical scientist in spite of an opening line that makes him seem weirdly antagonistic. He quickly warms up to Adams' character and clearly has her back throughout the story. I like seeing a male character who gets over prejudice without turning into a whining toddler. Reasonable men exist, Hollywood.

Unfortunately, there were also some downsides for me. I'll look at the less spoiler-y first.

As you can gather from the trailer, a big theme in this movie is language, namely how our language determines the way we think and ultimately the choices we make. So I was looking forward to seeing what techniques an expert linguist like Louise (Adams) would bring to the table to communicate with these extra-dimensional beings. And I got...stuff I learned in my three-month TESOL certification course.

I with the film had given its audience more credit. I felt sorry for Adams' character--having to explain everything to these morons.

"She wrote her name on a whiteboard and pointed to herself??? What wizardry is this? No one's ever done that before!"

Are you kidding me? That is literally the first thing anyone would do when trying to breach the language barrier. I guess "Me Tarzan, you Jane" is also too deep for these guys. At one point, Louise describes her own writing as "dazzle them with the basics." I feel you, girl.

Yet at another point the military criticize Louise for teaching the Heptapods simple nouns and verbs instead of immediately trying to learn their intentions toward Earth. In response, she takes the question "What is your purpose on earth?" and explains all the assumptions you need to make before that sentence makes sense. For example, do the aliens even have questions? How do they distinguish between you singular and you plural (or are they a hive mind, which no one suggests)? Do they have intentions, or are they creatures of instinct?

But wouldn't most people realize that's not a question you can ask or answer within a few weeks of studying a language? Everyone knows that you spend the first hour of Spanish 101 learning how to introduce yourself. And that's learning an Earth language as an Earthling.

In fact, Louise undersells the problem. As an experiment, I tried translating "What is your purpose on earth?" into Japanese, a language I know okay. I came up with,


Which isn't perfect, but it gets the job done. But obviously I've studied Japanese too long because I didn't realize for a while that I had completely bypassed one of Louise's big problems. In Japanese, you don't need the "you." "Coming to earth purpose is what" is a perfectly natural sentence. But it's a classic example of Japanese ambiguity that drives Americans up the wall. Apparently Japanese is weirder than Heptapod.

Another moment that made me wan to throw my computer across the room came when they figure out the Heptapods' language is only written, with no aural component. Again, the characters act like this is some mind-blowing concept we've never seen before (though thankfully it's a brief scene). Which would be insulting enough, even if they didn't spend a huge chunk of the movie TALKING ABOUT CHINA.


I realize it's not exactly the same thing because obviously you can speak Mandarin, but one of the most widely spoken languages in the world uses a writing system based on idea, not sound. You can't sound out a new character in Chinese like you can in English with d-o-g = dog. If you've never seen 犬 before, you will have no idea what it sounds like and probably no idea what it means unless someone tells you.

Also, we have sign language, which is neither written, heard, nor spoken.

Point being: This isn't new stuff. Earth languages are weird.

I'm disappointed in the lack of imagination in Arrival. There are so many ways to explore language in film, but in spite of some clever moments, Arrival felt very pedestrian.


I can't really discuss the ending of the movie without getting into spoiler territory, so if you want to see the movie as a totally blank slate, skip the rest of the review.

In addition to language, another theme of Arrival is nonlinear time. The Heptapods perceive time as all happening at once and it's this perspective they want to give to humans by sharing their language.

Okay, so far so good. But I feel like the way they develop this theme works better as a shoutout to movie buffs than in service to the movie's story. The most clever use of time and language plays with the language of film. For example, if we see one scene cut before another scene, we as audience tend to assume those scenes are meant to be in chronological order and that scene 1 will help us interpret scene 2--but that's not always the case. Sometimes movies need to show us events out of order.

Another example of film language is showing a scene out of context and then cutting to a character's reaction. Are we meant to see this as a memory? A vision? Mind reading? Without dialog, we can make guesses, but we don't know for sure.

Arrival uses nonlinear time to play with film language and give us a believable twist that fits with the setup of the film.

However, while the idea is good, the execution falls flat from a story perspective. The tragic backstory (or "front" story) they give the main character is beyond cliche. Literally think of the first sad thing that comes to mind, and that's probably it. The backstory scenes feel too sappy for the rest of the movie, and we don't need them to sympathize with the main character.

Nonlinear perspective also is key to solving the growing international conflict on earth. But the way Louise uses it...doesn't hold up to scrutiny. Briefly, Louise gains access to some highly private family information and uses it to talk down a hostile world leader. But if I were about to drop a nuke and some stranger called me and told me something only I should know, my reaction would be less "Yay world peace!" and more "Go to hell."

I wish Louise's plan were the culmination of facts we had seen throughout the film, occurring at both past and future spots in the timeline, instead of information that's dumped on her literally as she's putting the plan into action.

But the biggest issue surrounding the film's use of nonlinear time is one of character. And I've been putting off mentioning this for several hundred words now, but it's time to face the elephant in the room. Aliens and nonlinear time has been done before. Famously.

The moment you hear those concepts together, you can't help but think of Kurt Vonnegut's anti-war novel Slaughterhouse 5. But that book takes a slightly different angle from Arrival. Where in the film the aliens are altruistic beings capable of self-sacrifice who work towards a mutually beneficial arrangement with humans, Vonnegut's Tralfamadorians are assholes.

The Trafamadorians have no concept of death, so they have no regard for life. Everyone's both dead and alive to them. They feel no personal responsibility because everything that happens, happens. Their motto, which rings like a dirge throughout the book, is, "So it goes." Dresden gets firebombed. So it goes. Just accept it. The only expression of will for the Tralfamadorians is to gather as many happy moments as possible because they'll be experiencing them on endless replay for the rest of eternity.

Arrival didn't have to take the same route as Slaughterhouse 5. They could have portrayed multiple branching futures, or even multiple pasts. The Heptapods might not have a concept of death, since at one point they use the term "death process" instead of "dead," indicating that death is something they go through, not a final state. It's something to think about. But they appear to have some regard for human life and pursue their goals in a way that brings about peace on earth, so they're not heartless.

Yet the Tralfamadorian philosophy creeps in, not with the aliens but with our main character. Near the end of the film, Louise gains the enlightened perspective of the Heptapods, and it's implied (at least according to another character) that she makes a choice: to let another person die an early painful death. Louise reasons that the good times she will spend with that person outweigh the grief of parting--which after all is not truly the end.

But Louise is the only human who perceives time this way. For everyone else, dead is dead.

You could argue that Louise's choice gave this person a happy, albeit brief existence they wouldn't have had otherwise. But I was raised Christian, and I've heard that argument before. That's the line of reasoning that says God is perfectly within his rights to predestine us to hell. He created the world, he brought us into the world, and he can do with us as he pleases. It's a monstrous argument to defend a monstrous being.

By the end of the movie, Louise has become very Tralfamadorian. Collecting happy moments is all that matters. Other humans' agency? Not so much. Which would be fine if the film portrayed it as a morally ambiguous choice, or as a descent into fatalism. But the film ends with this "cherish the moment" uplifting tone that seems less appropriate the longer your think about the implications.

In conclusion, I think the value of Arrival comes down to whether you are a fan of film or a fan of story. If you're a movie buff, this film succeeds. But if you like good stories...

While writing this review, I began to wonder if all media takes place in nonlinear time. From my perspective, aren't the events of Arrival always happening? Don't I say, "Louise watches the alien arrival on the TV" and "Louise steps onto the space ship" as if those are both present, when in fact they are days apart for the character? Yet, when I actually read a book or watch a movie I have to experience it linearly the way the characters do.

 My journey with any work is linear, but it's a spiral. Each time I come back to a book or movie, I see something new, building on all my previous experiences with it. I wonder what I'll think the next time I watch Arrival.

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