What if an alien in the future stumbled upon Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival? Welcome to Earthling Cinema, where we examine the last remaining artifacts of a once-proud culture and try to understand what human lives were like before their planet was destroyed. I’m your host, Garyx Wormuloid.
This week’s film:
Stars: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Production Co: FilmNation Entertainment, Lava Bear Films, 21 Laps Entertainment
Written by: Ben Steiner
Directed by: Jared Bauer
Analysis by: Kevin Winzer
Starring: Mark Schroeder (https://twitter.com/mark_schroeder)
Edited by: Ryan Hailey (http://www.ryanhaileydotcom.com/)
Original Music by: David Krystal (http://www.davidkrystalmusic.com)
Opening Animation by: Danny Rapaport
Produced by: Jacob S. Salamon
Arrival’s Hidden Meaning – Earthling Cinema
Greetings, and welcome to Earthling Cinema. I am your host, Garyx Wormuloid. This week’s artifact is Arrival, starring thirty-eight time Oscar nominee and zero time Oscar winner Amy Adams, long may she reign.
The film begins with an adult female taking care of her young daughter as she dies of one of Earth’s many popular diseases. This adult is Louise, a linguistics professor at Human University. She’s got a lot of papers to grade, but if a bunch of military guys show up and ask for her help, sure yeah, the TA can just take care of it.
Which is exactly what happens, on account of the alien spaceships that have plopped themselves down in different places all over planet Earth — twelve to be exact, a couple handfuls to be inexact. And because this random teacher is the best goddamn translator on the planet, it’s up to her to figure out how to communicate with these a-holes. The “a” stands for “arrival.”
Well these arrival-holes are called heptapods and they look like big seven-fingered hands, or what all hands look like before circumcision. Louise quickly uses her translator powers to deduce that the heptapod language isn’t spoken, it’s written in circular air tattoos, duh.
But then the army guys tell her she has to keep doing the translation thing since China is getting antsy and wants to attack the spaceships. So Louise tells the heptapods she’s sick of doing all this unpaid work, just give her the answers already. They tell her she’s no fun, but ok: the daughter stuff is from the future, which is crazy because it means Louise isn’t going to age for at least another ten or twelve years. Turns out the heptabuddies are here to given humans their language, which has the power to alter time in some magical way that you’ll just have to go along with. This gift is sort of a “you scratch our giant hand, we’ll scratch yours” type thing, since in 3000 years they’re gonna need Earth’s help moving to a new apartment.
Louise gets a vision of herself at some kind of Bar Mitzvah, where the Chinese general is thanking her for stopping his attack on the spaceship. So she dusts off her old routine of just having someone else give her all the answers, and he tells her his phone number and exactly what to say. Back in the present she plugs in all the info and boom, peace is restored. Ian, the male lead, tells Louise he loves her in order to justify his presence on the mission. And even though she knows he’s the future father of her dead daughter and will abandon her to go hang out with the Avengers, she can’t pass up an opportunity for free sex.
Arrival depicts humanity’s response to a profound paradigm shift, which is also what I call my bowel movements. The heptapod arrival is an unprecedented event, and the human efforts to apply understood frameworks on the situation are predictably obtuse for a Class 12 species. The resulting confusion is exemplified visually when the humans enter the ship and try to throw a rave in a new, gnarlier form of gravity.
The film causes viewers to share the characters’ disorientation by manipulating traditional aesthetics and structures of film. The heptapod viewing area is shaped like a Samsung Galaxy Note screen, or really any screen, a visual motif that serves to remind us of the way we typically consume media. We expect movies that conform to certain architectures, such as a linear chronology and straightforward cinematography. And if it’s a big blockbuster, we also expect Jeremy Renner to show up at some point to grab his check.
Arrival gives us more J-Ren than we can handle, but it also gives us something different — upside down shots, confusing perspectives, and a timeline that eschews a beginning and an end. This philosophy is embodied in the design of the heptapod enclosure, which was inspired by John Turrell’s art installation “Breathing Light”, one of my top five favorite art installations of his. By eliminating depth perception, the work dislodges the viewer’s preconceptions about his surroundings and lets him just chill out for once, Karen. Thus, just as the scientists must forego their usual arsenal of data points, so too must the audience come to terms with the fact that this is an alien movie without any cool battle scenes.
The film suggests that communication is not only about translation, but also perspective. Initially, the so-called “scientists” try to understand the literal meaning of the heptapod words using their so-called “logic”. However, these interpretations do more harm than good because humans process everything through the Instagram filter of their own experiences.
It’s only when Louise becomes fluent in the heptapod language in about a week and begins to experience time from the heptapod point of view that she can grasp their purpose. Similarly, as the audience’s preconceptions dissolve, we realize Louise’s flashbacks were actually flash forwards, causing us to flashback to when the television show Lost did it first. The circular heptapod language reflects their view of time, without a beginning or an end, just 100% all-natural, grade-A middle. Likewise, Louise names her daughter Hannah, which is a palindrome. It can be read in either direction – from end to beginning, or future to present. Just like this video, which can be watched forward or rewound and watched forward again.
For Earthling Cinema, I’m Garyx Wormuloid. Goodbye in Chinese.