Saturday, 22 July 2017

Success and "failure" of Arrival

We finally caught the increasingly non-recent science fiction "thinker" (and 2017 Oscar nominee) Arrival. While I'd whole-heartedly recommend it for fans of the genre, nit-picker that I am, I have a few reservations as well. So this is less a review, more a niggle. Needless to say, spoilers ahead for those who've not made the journey so far.

First, what it gets right. Build-up is great, with only fleeting glimpses of the alien spaceships until the big reveal in a beautiful, cloud-wreathed valley in Montana. Their unworldliness begins with their design, as largely featureless geometric shapes, and is nicely underscored by the short distance they effortlessly "hover" above the Earth's surface. The aliens themselves are also handled well, if a little too much like squid, both in general appearance and in their use of extruded "ink". Making their audio extraneous for communication (an early misstep by their interrogators), and their language written yet initially indecipherable as communication works really well. And I liked what ultimately came to be their "gift" and why they made it, although it's mentioned so fleetingly that many may miss it.

What mostly-works but slightly-doesn't is that the film is one of those that makes more sense when you reflect on it afterwards. That's a good thing in my book, but I can well imagine that most people will leave this film utterly perplexed by what they've just seen. It's all there to make sense of it, but it's presented rather subtly at times, and often in an order that requires reflection to make sense of. For instance, a central conceit of the film (and a very clever one) is that Sapir-Whorf is true at a deep and fundamental level, but it's quite gently introduced to the viewer at a point where its relevance is opaque. And the consequence of this is illustrated by out-of-order glimpses of a child in what appear at first to be past memories, but which turn out latterly to be something else. However, the viewer is slightly misled by the presentation of some of this material upfront, seemingly as backstory, when it would arguably make more sense to introduce it latterly (narratively, perhaps, but maybe not emotionally).

My only "proper" reservation is, as ever, time travel - technically, I guess it's not exactly time travel, but, well, ... It's nowhere near as blunt as Interstellar (a film I forgave on a second viewing), but messing with the space-time continuum is a sure-fire way of getting my hackles raised. Especially here, where the film has its cake and eats it by allowing agency and then kind-of suggesting fatalism. However, it is still one of the cleverest uses of time-bending in film, so despite my hackles, I'm much more forgiving here.

Notwithstanding the foregoing, it really is one of the smartest science fiction films in recent years (or decades, even), presenting the sort of deep ideas that, while not uncommon in literary science fiction, rarely make it off the page. It does all of this gently and subtly without any of the distracting pace and action routinely misused in conventional "science fiction" films. And it does it while blending a human story of love and loss in with the central MacGuffin. Two thumbs up for sure.

P.S. I should just add that, with their relationship with time, the aliens reminded me of my favourite aliens, the Invaders of John Varley's novels. Although the Invaders still win because of their disinterest / disdain in humanity.