The Star Trek series Deep Space Nine was recently added to our local Netflix. Having not watched it since it came out on dvd after it aired, I was eager to get lost in it again. During the first episode (which is a great first episode) there were some surprising similarities between the aliens known as “prophets” and certain aliens I experienced just a day prior at the cinema.
Arrival is being hailed as one of the best sci-fi movies of the year, the decade, even of all time. I’ve seen people gush this movie to pieces, so my expectations were very high. The film, however, doesn’t really need hype. It’s not a “hypeable” film for me. Afterwards, as people stood in groups outside the cinema, you didn’t hear a lot of excitement. Instead people were talking about the ideas the film explored. Arrival is that very rare thing: a movie complicated enough to make people want to debate heavy concepts, gracious enough not to talk down to its audience, and yet completely accessible to the average movie-goer.
Arrival is the story of first contact. It’s probably the most realistic version of physical first contact I’ve seen on film. Humanity’s reaction is predictable and understandable: immediate panic as people glue themselves to their media outlet to find out what exactly is happening. We see this through the eyes of linguistics professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams). She is brought in by the military to try to establish communication with the aliens, and she’s going to need more than the random blinking lights of Independance Day (1996).
The film explores a lot of ideas: communication, the nature of advanced civilizations, what first contact might be like, as well as things like time, cause and effect, and dimensions. What I like most about the film is that it gives a lot of choice. Do you come out of the cinema fixating on how you could learn a language with nothing in common with the speaker, or the nature of time itself?
The Prophets of Deep Space Nine live outside time inside the only known stable wormhole to the Gamma quadrant of our galaxy. They capture Commander Sisko and try to understand him. While they have no problem communicating with him by implanting themselves in his memories and speaking through the people he remembers, they have trouble with the concept of time. What is linear existence? They can’t seem to grasp the idea that once we move beyond the now, it’s in the past and lost to us forever.
Arrival takes a more grounded approach to alien communication. They need to learn pronouns, basic verbs, then the concept of questions and answers. One thing that is not mentioned is that Louise’s team assume the aliens have the concept of pointing. Louise points to her name written on a whiteboard, then at herself, as a universal indicator of correlated meaning. In another Star Trek episode, this one from The Next Generation, this idea is questioned by having consellor Troi point to a cup and saying the word. Do I mean cup when I do that? I might mean liquid, the colour, the temperature, etc. The aliens might think Louise means human, chest, size, or something we can’t even imagine. This is how the movie gets you to ask questions, but it doesn’t get bogged down in the details too much. Arrival only delves in deep where it’s interesting or necessary. It’s a film that knows when to skip ahead and when exposition is needed. The clueless military types stand in for us and wonder how an alien language course might work.
The cinematography and music when inside the alien “pod” are beautiful, and especially the music evokes the strangeness of an alien language. Once inside, we are confronted with our visitors. For the first time in recent memory (perhaps going so far back as Alien) I was genuinely impressed by an alien’s design. So often films about strange creatures end up disappointing us at the final reveal. Perhaps because we meet them so early, their alieness is allowed to gestate, and instead of becoming used to them, I found myself increasingly uncomfortable at how they moved with intelligence. The CGI is certainly helped by the fog they use for atmosphere, but it’s a great job nonetheless.
The final “solution” to the movie is a two edged sword for me. My first big reaction was disappointment. It’s the same vague promise of Contact in that one person now “knows” the secret, but the are no immediate results for humanity. The aliens leave us with nothing but words and a vague hint of a future among the stars. Of course, we quickly realise Louise can now teach the language to the world so we can all experience it. Is it too abstract of a solution? The aliens tell her that in three thousand years they will need our help, so we need to get studying, basically. I admit to feeling slightly cheated that the real consequences of first contact are so far removed from our life-times.
Louise learns to see time differently. This raises so many questions for me. The prophets of Deep Space Nine do the same. If they do not think of the past as lost, how can they not always have known Sisko would visit them and explain linear existence? How can they be surprised at that event? So, does Louise simply see time as a whole from that point forward, or does she cease to exist linearly? The latter is likely when we consider she remembers a time before she saw “through” time. But the former surely must be just as likely when we consider that she essentially time travels as well. She collects information from the future when she lives through her future conversation with the Chinese general, and uses that information in the present. That is a boot-strap problem: the general tells her what she needs to tell the general in the present, which includes the message to tell her future self to tell the past general to tell her future selv… and on and on it goes.
Arrival is frustrating sometimes. Why, for example, does she look shocked at the news of her daughter’s illness when that “memory” is from a future where she knows everything that will happen? These frustrations don’t lead to nitpicking, but discussions. The movie needs to be rewatched to catch all the details, I’m sure. It is a well-acted, beautiful film that provokes thought without being the least bit pretentious. It is highly recommended. But the hype did not help its cause in my case because it almost led me to expect that “pushed back into your seat” experience. I was leaning forward throughout.
I’ll rewatch it sometime after seven seasons of Deep Space Nine.
Dice roll: 5