The imaginary must be imagined, accurately and with scrupulous consistency. A fantastic setting requires vivid and specific description; while characters may lose touch with their reality, the storyteller can’t.
Ursula Le Guin, review of The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
Is there any more point to science fiction?
The history of a genre is driven in part by the dynamic between convention and invention; science fiction, though, seems to have an extra feature. Its USP is meant to be its inventiveness, assumed to be found in a given story’s idea or set of ideas. Fans believe that this is proof of the genre’s vitality as compared to others. Critics believe it’s an excuse for what they see as science fiction’s otherwise more general conventionality.
These centuries-old arguments, themselves clichés, obscure the way that genre is always an opportunity, not only for inventiveness of ideas but everything. Conventions of a genre - ways that a type of story has been told, and therefore is told - are like walls. They mark the shape of things, and seem to close them off, but they’re also what can be climbed to get elsewhere. You can think of art-making then as a constant coming up against walls: i.e. being confronted by a series of problems and finding answers. Can Gravity make a space film feel wondrous in 2013? What was the body-snatching story unable to do in the past, and what can Upstream Color do with it now? And how do we tell these stories so that they have their fullest impact? With what techniques? What language?
* * *
One of the first questions you need to ask when doing a story about humans and aliens is: will they understand each other’s language? Most stories take an easy (or efficient) way out: super-intelligent aliens condescend to use our Earth tongue; a limpet on the back of the neck allows psychic communication, and so on. The film Arrival does not look for a workaround but sees the problem as central.
It tells the story of Dr Banks (Amy Adams), mother to a dead child, genius linguist, who is recruited by the US Army to enter one of twelve giant ships that have materialised around the Earth. Her mission, to translate a literally alien language so that we can ask our visitors Why They Are Here.
The key feature of the ‘Heptapod’ language is that it comes in two distinct forms, Heptapod A and B. One is spoken and the other written, or rather squirted from tentacles to hang in the air in circles of disintegrating toner dust. Circles, because Heptapod B is non-linear. A sentence in it has neither beginning nor end. And it’s ideographic too: a circle can stand for a word, an idea, a whole circular story.
The more fluent Banks becomes in Heptapod B, the more she starts to think like a Heptapod. Coming slowly through in reveries, she begins to understand that the aliens’ objective is their language, because of how it changes your mind and so your perception of reality. To learn it is to experience past and future moments in your own timeline, out of order, as with your DMT-user or Tralfamadorian from Slaughter House 5.
This gives the film its emotional pay-off: what we thought were flashbacks to Banks’s dead daughter are actually flashforwards to a daughter she’s not had yet with her colleague Donnelly (Jeremy Renner). By knowing this, Banks can accept her fate with ‘So it goes’ equanimity. Donnelly, we are told, will not (presumably he’s less fluent in Heptapod B).
Communication, time, fate. These are the big ideas - so what does the film do with them?
* * *
The film’s first real moment of interspecies communication takes place when a pair of Heptapods, who till now have been blaring through the glass at the non-plussed humans, interact with Dr Banks, who seems to be the first to think of trying visual as well as aural communication.
The Heptapods reply with the first of their Snapchat teacup-stains. Me Human, You Heptapod.
What if, though, the Heptapods had taken ‘HUMAN’ to be the name of the human holding the whiteboard in front of her like a badge? Or thought that ‘HUMAN’ was the label for the whiteboard, or this whiteboard in particular but not whiteboards in general? Or had thought that ‘HUMAN’ meant the act of gesturing? Or more specifically ‘to gesture at a whiteboard’? Or more specifically ‘to gesture at this whiteboard and not others, at this point in time, but not in general’? And all this and more would have to be considered when one of the Heptapods replied in kind. Not to mention whether it even was replying in kind. Perhaps it had just told the humans to piss off.
Sketching out these complications is not to gripe that the film’s initial moment of communication is implausible, but to point out the first of many missed opportunities. Banks herself alludes to these complications, placating her impatient boss Colonel Weber (Forest Whittaker) with a tall-tale about first contact in Australia, when the English asked the name of a certain animal and the Aborigines replied ‘Kangaroo’ (=‘I don’t know’). Filmmakers don’t need the vast distances of space to generate mystery and wonder; even the abyss between two kinds of language and thinking can be enough.
Because language, like all the everyday parts of our world, is as pointlessly complicated as anything with a history. This is the meat and potatoes work of science fiction: taking a naturalised concept - not just the big abstracts of space, time and origin - but the textures of everyday existence, and through exaggeration, omission or recombination, defamiliarising them - the tradition of great art. How else might things change, if we adjusted the parameters or our point of view? In fact, how much can change, be different, is possible - the ethic of art. Which ought to have its greatest champion in science fiction.
This isn’t the same as arguing we need more films with lessons in linguistics. Even so, it’s worth considering how the communication in Arrival is suspiciously uncomplicated - between the aliens and humans, but also between the film and audience. But then the film comes out of a different ethic entirely…
* * *
Nevertheless, Arrival is science fiction and we should treat it as such. It’s not using an otherworldly premise as a kind of poetic metaphor as with Melancholia or Another Earth. On the other hand, not all science fiction has to be ‘hard’, apologising for itself with maximal plausibility. Neither Snowpiercer's social or train engineering are rigorously worked out, but that doesn’t stop the film from being any good.
But what a film should pay attention to and how is not a quality that maps easily from film to film. Arrival’s other idea - that time is not linear - is somehow both treated without enough rigour and with too much caution. Fittingly for a story that loops around with time, Banks’s daughter has the name Hannah. But in case we don’t get why, Banks explains to her that it’s a palindrome. Then she explains to her what a palindrome is. (I guess she could’ve just as easily been named ‘Race car’.) It’s this worry that we might not get it - maybe not completely unfounded - that determines the rest of the way the idea is dramatised. The film uses flashback-and-forwards, both audio and visual, but glosses the device with a voiceover; otherwise, there is one major sequence where the past is caused by the future: on the verge of a panicked military-strike on the aliens, Banks remembers a moment from her future when the Chinese leader General Shang will have had told her his wife’s dying words (the weird tense is important). Back in the ‘present’, she relays these words to him, proving that something special is happening with the aliens and making him stand down his army.
But if this is as far as the idea is going to be taken, then it remains a cliché of the genre. And you don’t need to be an aficionado to think so. The complaint isn’t that it’s already been done in a short story in some obscure pulp anthology; only two years ago, Interstellar relied on the same causal loop (or ‘bootstrap’) plot device. The rest of Arrival would suggest that it’s down to a general lack of thoroughness: in a time travel film, where the changeability of events has been put front and centre, it would suit for a climax to be a tense gun chase; in Arrival, where the theme is peaceful fatalism, such a climax suggests that the filmmakers haven’t understood the kind of film they’re making.
This was what Le Guin (again) warned of, when she wrote that a certain literary novelist dabbling in dystopia, “uses essential elements of a serious genre irresponsibly, superficially.” In Arrival’s case, we can add: obliviously.
* * *
So what happens if we diminish these ideas even further? Try it: without reference to them, explain what else makes Arrival a good film.
Lots of people have cited the visuals, and it definitely has ‘a look’. Director Denis Villeneuve is a master, after all, of the pastiche of cinematic impressionism: dreamy deep focus, POV shots, thoughts and memories visualised at the point that they occur to the character with warm-coloured inserts - call it Nolanese, or the Music Video High Style. Otherwise, the film’s serious themes come in those reliable forms of chilly lighting and stately dollies. (A challenge: make a serious film without using a dolly-track). And beyond this look, the camera does little else. Apart from a sequence that follows an army helicopter and takes us into the bizarro-gravity alien ship for the first time, Arrival is made like a TV movie.
Unfair? At one point Banks, home alone, ends a foreshadowing call with her mother, and we watch their phone patter outro, for some reason. This might seem very nit-picky. But any good filmmaker would have a feel for when and why we ever need to see the ends of phone-calls. Especially in a film that otherwise trades in a certain style - which is not realism where such a shot might linger. Take for example the closing scene of The Sopranos episode ‘A Guy Walks into a Psychiatrist’s Office’. We see Tony and Carmella make domestic chit-chat for a good two minutes - but it’s tense with subtext. The lesson being that nothing in art is intrinsically good or bad but how it’s used. Because where else do we otherwise see the goodbyes of phone calls? Soap operas.
Maybe in a science fiction film it’s less important how we see than what, the genre being an exhibition of the strange. The Heptapod alien design glimpsed through fog is original, and consistent too with the rest of the story, their radial structure matching their language signs, the same way our number of fingers might have led to our Base 10 counting system. But on closer look the texture of the Heptapods seems to be cut from the same skin as every other alien since the Star Wars Prequels. As for their spacecraft, we see in one of those ‘grazing fingers’ extreme close-ups that it’s made of some kind of expensive kitchen-top. Arrival, Ex Machina, Westworld, Black Mirror: science fiction seems to be going through its Granite and Hardwood period, as if to say these are grown-ups that no longer shop at Ikea - they shop at Habitat. Accordingly, the Heptapods pick up Banks at one point in a corporate art pseudolith, while the film itself begins and ends at a lake house, that symbol of troubled bourgeois contentment in everything from The Godfather Part II to What Lies Beneath.
Meanwhile, accompanying those book-ending lake house scenes is Max Richter weepy ‘On the Nature of Daylight’, famous from its use in the YouTube supercut ‘Julianne Moore likes to Cry’ (which condenses all the times in films Julianne Moore has cried). The wider soundtrack too, by Jóhann Jóhannsson, is full of associations: the drones and blarps of the trailers of Inception and Dr Strange, but most of all the electronica artist Murcof.
At least beyond the look and the sound, Arrival has some great character actors, if not great characters. Forest Whittaker’s main deal is to sound like he’s from ‘Bahston’, Michael Stuhlbarg’s that he’s Michael Stuhlbarg. Their talents are put to speaking such action movie dialogue as “Give me 20 minutes!” / “We take off in 10.” Again, there’s nothing wrong with such conventionalities: it’s that they jar in a film that’s otherwise so insistent on its seriousness. Early on in a clever man’s glasses, Donnelly quotes Banks as saying that language is the cornerstone of civilisation, to which he responds that science is. Who talks this fatuously? And why set up this intellectual opposition only to then not use it? In fact, Donnelly’s character is pointless other than as a love interest and potential father but then I guess that’s progress for you. But even with that in mind, the two leads don’t have chemistry so much as Renner constantly giving shoulder-rubs in close-up. (Loud whisper: I think he likes you.) Meanwhile China is slightly ridiculously represented by General Shang (Tzi Ma) – “China’s Military Chief” (but why not also the Chairman / President? What’s going on here?) - anyway, those warlike and suspicious Chinese go on communication blackout when they’re spooked by a mistranslation suggesting that the aliens have a weapon, only after which does the United States react in kind.
As conventional as this all is, the true peak is when the alien ‘Costello’ (nicknamed after one half of the comedy duo, since pop-culture references from the past are classier) explains in Heptapod A to a recently conversant Banks where its partner has got to. The explanation is shown for the benefit of the audience in squid-inky subtitles: ABBOTT IS DEATH PROCESS. Hell, if we’re going to cheat, why not go the whole hog and have the alien say this in word-dropping foreign-ese, an uncredited Cumberbatch performance or whatever.
Or to sum up in the words of Vulture.com: “Arrival’s Big Opening Weekend Is Great News for Fans of Original Filmmaking”… We look forward to more of this in Villeneuve’s next film, a Blade Runner sequel.
* * *
So why has Arrival been called, “a big, risky, showy movie”, a movie made “calmly, unfussily and with superb craft”, a “beautifully polished puzzle-box of a story whose emotional and cerebral heft should enable it to withstand nit-picky scrutiny.”
Whenever there’s a consensus about a cultural product there’s usually something else going on. To apply some of that nit-picky scrutiny, it must partly be to do with the film being released in November 2016 - and in fact many reviewers have put this front and centre. Arrival, with its message of reaching out to others over cultural barriers, with its portrayal of a resilient female hero even, is consoling - circumstance turning the film into a Trump-l'œil that makes people see a more substantial film than is really there.
Other people have their own bias for films that get made outside the studio process, which is not even expressed, however, by being more indulgent of them; even before that, these films come pre-packaged with indie prestige. Take a cliché criticism of science fiction, in film maybe more than literature, but that you still get despite the evidence and so is a kind of generic bigotry: that it lacks when it comes to character, feeling and art. Hence your discriminating reviewer is glad for any science fiction that feels at once clever and humane. ("Yes, it’s set among space beasties, but it is a movie absolutely about the human condition.") And yet, despite suffering from those very lacks, a film like Arrival is taken, in an amazing re-evaluation, as its total converse. How?
In Villeneuve’s previous film Sicario, Benicio Del Toro’s does an angry-boy Cormac McCarthy monologue about how the drug war is ‘a land of wolves now’. (No Land of Wolves for Old Men?) This effort to be taken seriously, this desire to be looked up to… Arrival is as hokey as any Doctor Who episode but it dresses smart, like someone who goes to a cosplay event in their own clothes. For though it might strain not be like ‘those other films’, by doing so it ends up belonging to another set: the kitsch of science fiction - or SFK, for purists.
In SFK, a story coasts on the fact that it’s semi-fantastical. As with others in this category - Midnight Special, Robot Frank, the fundamentally weak-sauce Interstellar - the ideas are proud of their presence, as if simply being science fiction is audacious enough. Few surprises lay beyond that. The focus instead is on appearances: both the actual look, and also in the sense of an appearance of invention, an appearance of ambition. This is why SFK is usually glossy and fine - to put a sheen over what is so often glib.
Films can and should use short-hand; the problem is when it’s used in the wrong places, and worse, without realising it’s glib and instead taken as artful. With Arrival, in case the relative weirdness of the first half spook you, the film eases up with a montage in which Jeremy Renner’s character updates us on What We Know So Far. The film also ends where it began - but having a story about non-linear time go full-circle should be a first draft idea, not in your final version.
You often see SFK films described as mind-fuck movies (see the cottage industry in Ending Explainer videos that Arrival has already spawned). It’d be more accurate to call them mind-wank movies. And this is less of a cheap shot than it might sound: these films are safe, inward-looking, they repeat and reaffirm what you already know. It’s all so disappointing.
* * *
In the coda of Arrival, Donnelly, again rubbing Banks’s shoulder, tells her that he’s always been searching the stars but what surprised him most “wasn’t meeting Them… it was meeting you.” It’s important though to distinguish here between schmaltz and kitsch, since the confusion is one of the reasons why people will nod gratefully through a film like Arrival and groan at a film like Contact.
Contact is unashamedly schmaltzy. This has less to do with its much-maligned ‘daddy-god at the end of the universe’ climax than the earnestness of its Y2K culture war chit-chat coming from the outstandingly named Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey). Even so, Contact still surpasses Arrival as filmmaking (it knows how to tell its story, regardless of how cheesy that story might seem). Because Robert Zemeckis et al took on the challenges of their ‘first contact’ premise. How to top the star-gate sequences of so many other films? How to credibly convey an incredible global event in the Age of Information? Newscasters doing grim announcements on fake TV channels is too trite to be convincing any longer and yet Arrival opted for just that. (20 years ago, Contact manipulated real news footage, with Jodie Foster’s character digitally inserted into Bill Clinton press conferences.)
By no means did all of Contact’s solutions work, but at least it tried. With Arrival, we have gone backwards. By making sure with its sound and production design that we won’t think of it as schmaltz, it misses the point that the value of a science fiction film can’t be just its ‘sophistication’. The ending of Close Encounters of the Third Kind has a simple message to the point of homily (first contact will be magical not scary). But its climax is artistic, cinematic, symbolically so, depicting a human audience in a dim space dazzled by sound and images. (And you might want to go Full Adorno and say that this is a Bad Thing, but it’s undeniably a formal exercise).
* * *
The question all science fiction filmmakers should ask themselves today is will they tackle constraints beyond the logistical? Or in other words, is the only task that the filmmaker faces to ‘get their film made’, especially in the current market?
Tackling logistical constraints can itself be part of the artistic process. The initial question of Coherence must have been how to make an ultra-low-budget film, set in technically one real location, and still be great science fiction (and a film that, without giving too much away, marries its idea with its execution). Having to strive in the same market as Arrival, the films Ex Machina and Under the Skin are both flawed but still superior, because they do something with and for the genre. (They cross genres, they subvert them, though this latter is not the same as shunning them.) Although Ex Machina might seem like a standard men-talk-ideas-in-rooms set-up, it plays with exactly these gendered expectations; while Under the Skin, to begin with at least, fulfils director Jonathan Glazer’s stated objective “to keep it alien.”
Speaking of gendered expectations, one interesting thing is the way Arrival uses the convention of a serious female character needing to have some traumatic past (whereas a man can simply be serious). The convention is exploited to tell the film’s story, to accomplish the sleight of hand that makes you think she’s grieving over a daughter who it’s later revealed doesn’t exist yet.
This playing with cinematic tense was where Arrival had its greatest potential. There is an obvious link between the film’s ideas about non-linear time and the non-linearity of film itself. In a way, all films are experienced in the present tense. We can know from convention that flashbacks are set at a different point in time to the main plot. But this a convention that’s so naturalised that you forget that it had to be learned. There was a time when watching mountaineers under an avalanche then watching them get into their climbing gear at home, you’d think – well how did they escape? So films might ‘be’ in the present tense, but they’re also not intrinsically linear. And you can create non-linearity because scenes and shots can be omitted, repeated, shown from different angles and perspectives; a film can even be understood running backwards. (It takes a lot more effort to do this with written language, especially when you don’t speak Heptapod B.)
You might worry that a film playing even more fast and loose with order and cause-and-effect wouldn’t be possible, let alone watchable. But think of what fun you could have with a character who begins to experience different moments in their own timeline. In Arrival, we have the same device repeated: inserts with an explanation via voiceover. But imagine using something as simple as multiple images too, dissolves, split-screens, Enter the Void style morphs. Or younger and older actors playing the same part within a same scene. Or a scene itself occupying two moments of space-time via merged sets, as briefly in Cloud Atlas. Or a character leaving a scene at one point in their history then entering a scene at another. Science fiction is not hostile or indifferent to creativity and artistry; if anything, it should be ideal for encouraging them.
A working definition of art: the appearance of excess that is in fact a total control. In The Red Shoes the ballet fantasia sequence keeps going longer than what is functional, than what you’d ‘reasonably’ expect. This excess doesn’t have to be taken literally however (longer tracking shots, vaster production design). Nor does it have to mean elaboration. Arrival has a subplot in which an unnamed soldier is alarmed by the Heptapods, radicalised by Youtube, and finds accomplices to try and blow-up the aliens. Compare this with a similar subplot in Contact; in that film, the man who tries to disrupt alien contact through bombs is teased throughout. But he is not more fully realised because he has more screen-time - he is given dramatic attention by being set up as a third axis in the film’s cold science/ humanistic faith opposition: he is the fanatically religious Luddite. (In Arrival, the mutineering soldier is nothing but Fear.)
The appearance of excess then is simply when you go beyond the received wisdom of how something is meant to be, its formula or form - in other words, formal invention. The word ‘formal’ however shouldn't be taken to apply only at the macro level (a time travel film, but told as a self-correcting documentary; a novel about future mental illness, but told as the DSM XXVIII). It should also take place at the micro level, a form’s devices, a genre’s tropes, literally everything that constitutes the work in question.
Doing something formally inventive is different to just being original. Arrival can be ‘original filmmaking’ because of its surface-level difference to certain mainstream science fiction films. Yet at the same time, the point isn’t that Arrival should instead be cowed by its debts to Contact, Close Encounters, The Day the Earth Stood Still etc. - these debts are as inevitable as any history. It’s that the history of the genre is not something to repeat or homage but to use: to justify that history and to revitalise that genre.
Genres exist across art-forms. They are realised through formal elements - science fiction in film is told through cinematic devices - and so are subject to the material history of a form: in the past certain stories couldn’t be told the way they can be told now. But genres being concepts are less materially constrained than forms. A film can’t really be a billion hours long (yet), but a science fiction story can use the devices of its given form to try and tell a billion hours.
It’s through lacking historical perspective that criticism itself becomes conventional, resting on useless false binaries: in film, studio versus indie; in literature, realism versus experimentalism (as though there’s never been innovative realism or a complacent avant garde); and in whichever narrative form, the ‘marketing category’ of genre versus ‘authentic’ art. But the trap of this way of framing things doesn’t fall into place until Establishment Modernism reminds you that art-forms are exhausted anyway. There is nothing left to do! So any residual desire for invention comes from the market, from an anxiety of being out of date or the vanity of wanting to do something first. But what if that was all true, but at the same time it was an act of freedom?
Realising that a limit is not insurmountable, but something that can be transcended, a problem that might be solved, is - in art, as in life - a kind of freedom: expansiveness, new space to move. And so an art-work, in a science fiction way, becomes a little tinker-toy model of what is possible. Yet it’s never enough; the form becomes a formula, the new space builds its own walls, and the walls become naturalised. Until the arrival of history and the artist to take apart this next natural state of affairs.
But despite this historical process, the future of science fiction isn’t inevitable. How could it be? It’s made by humans. That potential though is always there. If science fiction is to be for anything, it is to show in form and content what is still and always possible.
Science fiction, to end on one last cliché, often gets compared to a hallucinogenic drug. And if films can be mind-altering too, how much more potent for the climax of Arrival to have been a vision of cinema. Its story of how our languages, concept of time, even our fear of death are not natural facts, but artifices that can be dismantled and restructured into something better, told through a genre and form that are themselves made up of conventions and limits that can be dismantled and restructured - this should’ve been such a fortune, in the many senses of that word. To put it another way, Arrival should have changed our minds.
Many thanks to Joel Janiurek and A D Jameson for their ideas, input, and jokes.
Mazin Saleem is a writer of fiction and non-fiction at Open Pen, Litro Magazine, The Literateur, Big Other and Little Atoms, where he has written stories about teeth and islands, and articles on the merits of Veep, the sins of Jurassic World and what Lost has in common with The Tree of Life; he is also a contributor at the London Graphic Novel Network and various S.M.A.S.H. comics panels.