Movie Review: Arrival

This has been a weird month – I rarely see as many theater movies in several months as I’ve seen in this one. So here’s another of my cutting-edge movie posts. Not only has everybody probably already seen this one, also, but even I saw it last weekend and am only writing it up now. Arrival is based on the brilliant Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life” and I wanted to re-read that before talking about the film. It just took me a week to do so. It doesn’t really change much of my impression of the film, except to underscore how expanded, yet thinned, the adaptation is. (This post covers all sorts of thematic issues from both the story and the movie and focuses on all sorts of details but I don’t believe any climactic plot elements or big surprises are spoiled.)

(Edit: Actually, to be on the safe side, if you haven’t read the story, then I guess maybe this is a spoiler of a review. If you haven’t read the story, it doesn’t spoil that because there’s no “big twist” and, if you have read the story, then the film can’t have any “big twist” to spoil but, I guess, if you aren’t familiar with either, then the movie is supposed to have that twist. Again, I don’t think it helps to treat it as a twist but, still, to be on the safe side, maybe skip this review until seeing the movie (which this review does conclude is worth doing).)

Arrival begins with the aliens arriving, naturally enough, and it is a remarkably well done sequence taken by itself. The sense of strangeness colliding with normalcy has a feeling of, “Yes, this is how it might happen. How it might feel.” I don’t know that the sequence is really necessary, though. It certainly wasn’t to the story as it wasn’t in it. Further, while it is fascinating in its way, it is also a slow moving sequence which sets the pace for the whole film. I don’t know why science fiction movies seem to come in almost nothing but two flavors: popcorn-movie action and speed using science fantasy and comic book elements and “the proverbial good science fiction movie” which somehow manages to be somewhat slow and boring. You’ve got your Star Wars movies, your Marvel movies and whatnot and then you’ve got 2001, Contact, and others, including this. So that’s one thing the movie gets quite wrong in an adaptive sense and in an intrinsic sense. Chiang’s story is quiet but not really slow. This movie is, despite sometimes being flashy and noisy. Chiang’s story is quite focused and small in a character/scenery sense, while it’s gigantic in a conceptual sense. The movie preserves some of the concepts but adds a bunch of international politicking and intrusive soldiers and generally spends a lot of time on things outside the main core of ideas.

Another thing that’s odd about the movie is that it actually demands quite a bit of an uninitiated audience in the sense of playing with time and the narrative in a way that may not be readily understood. Yet part of the core of the story was the linguistics and that is basically heavily abridged for cinematic convenience, especially in a key part when the protagonist and the aliens basically start talking like they’re native to each other.

A final small, but severe, problem is that, while many participants may be up for awards, I sure hope the sound editor is not (unless it was a problem with my theater). Much of the movie’s dialog was very hard to hear.

Aside from those two or three gripes, however, the movie does at least keep its eyes on the story’s prize. The movie is about language and time and causality. It is about a man, a woman, and a child. It is about humans and aliens. It keeps at least hints of all the essential things. The things it adds, while sometimes somewhat “Hollywood,” are somewhat plausible and not entirely at variance with the core. The things it modifies stay essentially true to the story. It’s hard to say without spoiling but one thing the movie modified actually tremendously improved on the story: let’s say the specific reason for why deciding whether or not to have a child might have been difficult. Other modifications, such as the barely different heptapods and their slightly different writing and the interface between the humans and aliens, are quite interesting and look really good. Even if the alien ships and the method of entry is kind of silly, I felt a genuine thrill and sense of wonder at that point. And the actors are quite good. It amazes me when I recollect that I probably first saw Amy Adams in a bit part on Buffy, the Vampire Slayer – look at her now.

In sum, I didn’t quite love the movie and I don’t quite understand what seems to be the overwhelmingly positive response its gotten from out-of-genre circles but it is worth seeing. I would still prefer to read and re-read the story, though. And there is something extremely… I’m not sure if it’s ironic or apropos… but something odd about this story being the first thing of Chiang’s to be adapted to film. The story (like all literature) is very much like the Heptapod B language: you can read its last line before its first, skip around within it, focus on any part of it. Whereas movies are very much like ordinary human languages (and lives), moving in time from point A to point B with little certainty of what’s to come next and little ability to catch up with anything you’ve missed (unless you get it on DVD). So, in a sense, the story is about translating into the worldview of Heptapod B and uses a congenial medium and the movie sets itself the audacious task of doing that in an antithetical one. Given that, it does a pretty good job.

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Movie Review: Rogue One

When I post about a story, it’s always spoiler-free. (Well, it has been so far – I haven’t decided about how to handle classic stories but there’d certainly never be spoilers without warnings.) This is about a movie, though, so I think I’ll do this in three sections. No spoilers at all, a normal description and discussion of non-spoilery parts of the movie, and then a spoiler-filled section. This is all academic because I’m probably the last person on earth to have seen the movie but I just have a thing about spoilers.

No Spoilers

For quite awhile early in the movie, I was very worried and not happy. However, things got better for me and I ended up enjoying it. If you haven’t seen it, I recommend it.

Synopsis (still no critical spoilers)

The protagonist is the Scientist’s Lovely Daughter but this is done so well, I didn’t even think of her in that way until just now. She is the daughter of a scientist who has tried to escape the clutches of the evil empire, but has been found. They kill his wife and force him back to his vital work on the Death Star, while his daughter escapes. Years later, she is captured by the Empire but then gets rather forcibly abducted by the rebel Alliance and is initially not at all eager to participate. They need her because they want to contact a person who’s an even more radical rebel than they are and he happens to have been her foster parent. Since he has picked up a vital defector and he wants nothing to do with the Alliance, they think she’ll get them in the door. A Love Interest is assigned to handle her and they go off to meet the guy. In the course of this, they acquire a pitiful band of rebels, learn how the Death Star acquired its famous flaw, participate in much derring-do about quite a bit, and the relatively small movie surprisingly blossoms into a gigantic space opera sequence.

The original Star Wars was quite dark in its ways but was also quite light and had the wise old Ben, the innocent farmboy Luke, the beautiful princess Leia, and even the scoundrel Solo really had a heart of gold. Naturally, the Alliance were the Good Guys. In ways, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, and numerous other things shared similar aspects. In these days of grimdark, everything gets the new BSG treatment and I was initially afraid this movie was going to do the same thing to Star Wars in a ruinous way. The scientist is a collaborator, the orphaned heroine is a cynic, the hero is an assassin, the Alliance is coercive and split with internal strife, and on and on. Even the cinematography seemed dark and a bit claustrophobic. So it had Star Wars things in it but didn’t feel like Star Wars or even much look like it.[1] By the time we began acquiring our ragtag band, though, I began to warm to the film. The “Jedi” and his machine-gun-blaster toting friend (why doesn’t everyone have weapons like that?) seemed like iconic, yet likeable, characters and the droid (who seemed half overly-like C3P0 and half-overly-diametrically-opposite to him) gradually became more rounded and likeable. In essence, it recaptured the initial delight of the fast banding together of C3P0 and R2-D2, Luke, Ben, Han and Chewie, and Leia in the first movie. Which raises the point that this movie frequently referenced the originals but much more adroitly (for the most part, with critical exceptions) than the heavy and constant referencing of The Force Awakens. Finally, while it would be hard for things to go much more differently, the main underlying point of the movie regarding sacrifice for the cause and the power of (the original) hope is very much in line with the original movie.

WARNING: Absolutely Total and Ruinous Spoilers!

Death. At least two aspects of death in this movie figure prominently and it’s perhaps ironic which bothers me and which doesn’t. This is a very unusual movie in that it returns to the darkness of its opening and kills off every single main character. But I don’t have a problem with it. It enabled the movie to put them in a situation most Hollywood movies would get them out of at the price of a complete destruction of suspension of disbelief. Here, they were able to avoid most of that. (The obviously not-dead Love Interest having been shot but returning at the precise moment needed to allow the Lovely Daughter to complete her mission is an example but is minor.) And their deaths are transfigured by their hope (and our knowledge) that the sacrifice is not in vain and does accomplish something wonderful. One might complain that the ultimate moment exactly repeats that moment in (I think it was) Deep Impact (and that it repeats itself – though perhaps appropriately – in that that’s how the foster parent died) but it’s an effective and well shot scene. So I was okay with the ending but could certainly understand it troubling some people (especially any movie execs who wanted to make a sequel of the prequel – but they’ll probably just make a prequel of the prequel).

The other aspect is more troubling. It seemed to me that they actually used clips from the original to produce the fighter pilots from it in this movie and I assume they are all alive or at least some of them may be. Either way, I felt like this was an excellent call back and really thrilled to it. It made perfect sense and was a small tasteful component to the larger action. The very large role given to Governor Tarkin was quite disturbing to me, though. Much like the dancing bear, being able to do it at all was amazing but it was not convincing, looking like some kind of animatronic replica. There was a tiny but hugely significant uncanny valley of wrongness. And though it was a final and shoulda-been-wonderful scene which featured Leia receiving the plans (and Carrie Fisher was alive at the time), the CGI of the younger princess was also not convincing and was disturbing. And that’s just the aesthetics. I’m not sure how I feel about the ethics and propriety of it all.

A couple of trailing notes: speaking of prequels, I am ordinarily very opposed to them. I like stories that move forward, advancing into the future and this is all the more important in SF. But, if you’re going to do a prequel, this is how it’s done. It focuses on what seems like an important but small part of the original and then magnifies it in a way that seems self-justified but which also (I think and hope) will enhance, rather than detract from, my enjoyment of the original when I watch it again, which will be very soon.

And speaking of flaws, in a negative way I want to see it again just to see if the part where they travel across the galaxy, find a spot of a planet, and a building in that spot, and a spot in that building, and follow each other one by one to that spot, is rationalized any better than I thought. (I’m speaking of when Love Interest was trying to shoot the Scientist and Lovely Daughter was climbing the building and Pitiful Band followed them all.) It seemed way too convenient in a The Force Awakens style where the rest of the movie seemed to avoid the worst of the “we forgive you” moments The Force Awakens asked us of us.

Still, I’m very glad to have seen it, wouldn’t mind seeing it once more in theaters (if I really hurry), and expect to get it on DVD just like the original trilogy and The Force Awakens.

[1] Edit (2017-02-03): Reading the Wikipedia article reminds that part of what threw me off in the beginning was the omission of the opening crawl and the changed music. It probably wasn’t  even so much that as that the opening music just didn’t seem very good. However, the music returned to its usual excellence and I forgot about that complaint. Another thing akin to this is the location text superimposed on the images at points throughout the movie which is a klutzy thing the other movies didn’t do. If we were on Tatooine or Dagobah, that’s just were we were and it was made clear by the movie itself. And somehow I forgot about the Yoda-as-pinball-in-the-prequels scene of Vader boarding the ship near the end. If you compare how he entered the ship in Star Wars and in this, it’s just two scenes you can’t square. But, unlike the silly Yoda scene, this was a friggin’ awesome scene, however inconsistent.