Culture

Controlling the Narrative

Amy Adams in Arrival (Paramount)
Arrival’s science fiction explores deep space: the realm of political manipulation by the media.

As a science-fiction film with political undertones, Arrival improves on the 2009 District 9, in which an alien orb also hovered above Earth and panicked civilization. Arrival is distinguished by its spiritual overtones, a hallmark of director Denis Villeneuve, who uses the sci-fi scenario to examine the philosophical tensions felt by his characters. Linguistics professor Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is forced to rethink everything she knows and has experienced when she and physicist-mathematician Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) are enlisted by the U.S. government to help decode messages and communicate with the aliens. Villeneuve’s psychological emphasis differs from the shrillness of District 9’s post-Apartheid scenario, a silly conceit that did not live up to the speculative potential of sci-fi. The moody introspection and intricate plot design of Arrival make it District 9 for adults.

Eric Heisserer’s script for Arrival (an adaptation of the short fiction “Story of Your Life,” by Ted Chiang) shows a somber intelligence. It ponders the ethics in government’s use of language and theory as military tools, but this is a writerly ruse to deepen the audience’s emotional involvement. Banks and Donnelly first compete professionally: “Language is the foundation of civilization,” she argues. “No, science,” he counters. They enter the suspended spacecraft (one of several that have appeared on different continents, provoking fears of warfare among several different international governments) and come together sympathetically when they are faced with the intergalactic visitors’ strange amphibian appearance. The seven-limbed creatures (called Heptopods) demonstrate a unique style of communication that relies on visual shapes rather than humankind’s alphabet.

Villeneuve’s moody ambience and spectral imagery (gravity-defying perspectives and shifting time) add mystery that distracts from Heisserer’s conjecture about language. Villeneuve’s a pro at creating an unsettling aura (as seen in his features Incendies, Polytechnique, Prisoners, and Sicario). But his style, inexplicably grungy and cacophonous here, overplays the characters’ sensory confusion — a needlessly vague metaphor for Arrival’s revelations about destiny and human sensitivity. (It needs Terrence Malick’s limpid precision.) French-Canadian Villeneuve, who is one of the Western hemisphere’s most gifted and serious filmmakers, yearns for a deeper seriousness than the thumb-twiddling escapism that generally passes for sci-fi these days.

The stories in Villeneuve’s most effective films demonstrate considerable social consciousness: Middle East tribal conflict that comes home to roost among Canadian immigrants in Incendies, and the post-9/11 fear of terrorists that invades an American community in Prisoners. In these, Villeneuve is more like Stanley Kramer than Christopher Nolan. That’s meant as a compliment. Arrival is much more substantive than Interstellar and Inception, even though it closely resembles both.

Note Banks’s subtle political cynicism springing up in peremptory comments: “Am I the only one having trouble saying ‘aliens?’” she asks a roomful of government wonks, relaying a recognizable modern anxiety. But can the Marvel kids appreciate the seriousness of the issues that concern Villeneuve? Or is all the film’s talk about philosophy, anthropology, psychology, sociology, neurobiology, and orthography just chatter, like the numeric recitations of the astronauts and NASA scientists in 1950’s Destination: Moon?

On one level, Arrival is an unusual $47 million, major-studio art film that manipulates the sci-fi genre to address mortality. It’s not unlike Alain Resnais’s Je t’aime, Je t’aime (1968), often mistaken for sci-fi, though it’s actually an existential love story about a man’s regret over his sexual past. When Banks, similarly, cannot separate professional, political duty from her personal life, Arrival takes on depth and mystery but also too much sentimental banality: “Are you dreaming in the aliens’ language?” Donnelly asks Banks, being either intellectually inquisitive or date-movie seductive.

Arrival holds interest because Villeneuve and Heisserer branch out from sci-fi and deliver subtle commentary on the state of news-media manipulation.

On another level, though, Arrival holds interest because Villeneuve and Heisserer branch out from sci-fi and deliver subtle commentary on the state of news-media manipulation. Unexpectedly, they leap into a timely problem: how narrative is used to affect public perception. In one scene that sets the film apart from standard blockbuster spectacles, Banks has a phone conversation with her mother: “Please don’t bother with that damned channel. How many times do I have to tell you, those people are idiots?”

It’s unclear whether Banks is referring to CNN, MSNBC, or the oft-maligned Fox News — Arrival conspicuously avoids that common practice of employing familiar TV-news faces (performers who, despite being recognizable, are less than personalities), and it uses no network-news logos, eschewing Hollywood’s loathsome, unprincipled habit of product-placement. What a relief — and a release — from the usual, hegemonic collusion of mainstream media and Hollywood.

Banks’s commentary gets a too-knowing laugh from audiences accustomed to snarkiness about (right-leaning) media, but Arrival deserves better than such an obvious conspiratorial reflex. After all, Villeneuve shows clips of rioting in socialist Venezuela and other global crises that inspire Banks’s attempt at multilateral engagement with foreign/alien intruders.

#related#The film’s play with memory, fantasy, and political truth is primarily carried by the emotional complexity that Amy Adams gives to Banks’s character. She subtly moves between caution and fear, control and freaking out and then sustained awe; uncannily, she resembles Donald Trump as he took measured steps toward the microphone when accepting this week’s election results. No one in U.S. news media seemed to have enough movie-watching experience to note the fluctuations of feelings, the mix of egotism and humility, apparent in Trump’s expression. This harkens back to the scene in Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 that caused some to callously misunderstand George W. Bush’s momentary perplexity immediately after learning of the attack, when he was reading a story to a roomful of children. Because we maneuver daily between media-controlled narratives and personal responses to social phenomena, Banks’s quip about “that damned channel” takes on surprising significance.

Villeneuve realizes that movie-watching is people-watching. So while manipulating the sci-fi genre for popular effect, he explores life in non-linear time and ends by creating a political science fiction. Though a second-rate, semi-profound art movie, Arrival is nonetheless an ambitious demonstration of how the media manipulate our perception and our experience.

Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles. His new book, Make Spielberg Great Again: The Steven Spielberg Chronicles, is available at Amazon.

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