Good movies are rarely about what they appear to be about.

Most comedies are, right below the surface, quite sad. Most horror movies are political statements. Speculative or dystopian science fiction is always about the present. Post-apocalyptic stories are about pre-apocalyptic society. Zombie movies are about the living. Films about run-amok technology are really about the human beings using it.

Movies about extraterrestrials, likewise, are really about the people and cultures here who encounter them. This is true of “Arrival,” the new hit film by Denis Villeneuve, which explores Earth’s sudden visitation by a dozen monolithic, half-spherical spacecraft, parked at apparently random locations around the globe, the intentions of their occupants unclear.

 Amy Adams stars as Louise Banks, a linguist dispatched to communicate with the creatures inside a ship that appeared in rural Montana, where it hovers perpendicular to the ground. The aliens emerge as seven-legged, squidlike beings (”heptapods”) that seem less menacing than enigmatic, strange and melancholy.

The story becomes a detective case in which Louise and a physicist named Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) unravel the nature of the creatures’ nonlinear perception of space and time, as conveyed through circular, cryptographic script emerging from their tentacles like black vapor. Their discoveries sync with Louise’s apparent flashbacks to an earlier and tragic life as a single mother, in a manner recalling the intoxicating structural puzzles that Christopher Nolan films like “Memento,” “Inception” and “Interstellar” have popularized in mainstream Hollywood blockbusters.

“Arrival” is beautiful and meditative in the tradition of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and it packs such an emotional wallop that you’ll forget it’s a movie featuring aliens from outer space that ends up being mostly about language and communication, with zero lasers fired.

If “Arrival” had come out a year or two ago, it would have received critical acclaim and perhaps some award-season recognition its arresting cinematography and maybe Adams’ performance. But it emerged in a different world than the one in which it was created, and that changes how it’s perceived. “Arrival” is now a political document that will always be remembered as the first big movie released following Donald Trump’s election win. It is impossible to appreciate on its own merits, but is a more interesting (and depressing) film because of its inadvertent historical significance.

The politics in “Arrival,” to the extent that they overtly exist, are straightforward. The scientists’ struggles to communicate with the pair of aliens (whom they nickname Abbott and Costello) mirror the geopolitical conflicts that erupt when world powers can’t agree how to confront the possible existential threat. The solutions — military restraint, the cooperation of superpowers, a deferral to science and reason, an optimism about our place in the cosmos — seem quaint within the reality into which we have now stepped.

Many culture writers have opined about the comforts of watching “Arrival” in a suddenly changed world, but during my trip to the theater in search of soothing escapism, I had the opposite experience.

“Arrival” is what you’d call an appeal to the better angels of our nature, a tribute to human ingenuity and cooperation. But that’s a hard pill to ingest when, at the end of 2016, many of us suddenly wonder whether our loved ones will retain their basic human rights. Or whether our friends, family or neighbors will be victim to the next bigoted attack that the incoming president, surrounded by ideological extremists eager to undo decades of social progress, will scarcely bring himself to condemn.

Movies like “Arrival” are a way to reconcile the statistical near-certainty that life exists elsewhere in the universe with our inability to detect it or be detected by anyone who’s interested in meeting us. They allow us to believe there’s something about us that an advanced extraterrestrial civilization would find useful, or even worth visiting.

That’s farfetched today, even for science fiction.

Troy Reimink is a writer and musician who lives in west Michigan.

Source: Traverse Country Record Eagle


Comments are closed