Saturday, January 7, 2017


2016, Denis Villeneuve (Sicario) -- cinema

My unwritten novel starts with cello music the same way this movie does, beautiful haunting and appropriate to the lonely locale. In a way, the music set the tone for the movie much more than any visual did. This looks like a Villeneuve movie, from his architecture shots to his not entirely sharp way of building wide shots. Sharp, as in exquisite camera shots. When someone like Michael Bay shoots a movie, most on the screen is CGI that comes out incredibly focused, so everything around it has to be shot as such. For Villeneuve, it's more about the story, so the mood has to be set. I am more appreciative of this camera work these days, as I find it very hard to view a very sharply shot movie, because.... well, focus, both visually and emotionally. Villeneuve made it so very easy for me to do both. He helped me hunch in my seat, ignore the people checking their phones and just be absorbed.

Aliens have arrived in big disks, like they always do. And like they always do, these disks float over our cities, but sometimes just over big empty fields in Montana. Unlike other alien movies, this is not just happening in the US, and there is not just a team of smart people in the US. There are smart teams everywhere and for them all to be smarter, they work together. Like many alien visits, the heptapods leave heavy lifting of First Contact to us. Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner are tasked with trying to understand & communicate with the Montana disk. Amy is language, Renner is physics. Forest Whitaker is the army colonel in charge of all this, because we know the military will always be in charge of it.

Everyone highlights how this is a smart science fiction movie, about smart people doing smart things. True, not denying it, but it's not what the movie is about.  In The Martian, much of what the movie was about was showing the smart science. The linguistic science of Arrival is presented only briefly under the microscope, and then becomes the backdrop to what our main character is experiencing. This movie is not about one person being the only useful one in the room, though it definitely starts that way, but about choosing the right path (in this case, science & understanding) vs the wrong path (fear and mistrust).

Arrival is a very beautiful movie, at its heart.

Amy Adams plays a character that just wants to connect with these visitors and she cannot conceive they are here to do harm, because if they wished to, they would have already. But the beauty doesn't really come from her drive, not entirely.


The core beauty of this movie comes with the reveal of exactly how different the aliens are from us. As Adams' character explores the language structure of these creatures, she begins to experience things, dreams and memories that seem, at first, like they are influencing her to remember and feel things she is repressing, memories of a daughter lost to cancer, on an uncaring husband who is not there. These memories distract her, overwhelm her, but don't deter her. The more she works the more the experiences these jarring happenings. Until a final confrontation with the alien she calls Costello (as in, Abbot and...) explains to her that the aliens feel time as a whole, not as a past, present and future but always as a whole now.

For them, a life is made up entirely of all of its parts. In much the way we faintly recall our past, they must faintly recall their future. So, the message to humans is for them to live life fully, to see all of it as beautiful, to accept the good and the bad as part of the joy of living.

OK, the aliens don't explain that, they are not platitude serving gurus leaving us with text over scenes of sunsets to post of Facebook, they just offer us what is theirs to offer. But the core (for me) is that, if you knew you would see hints of your consequences, that you could be tortured by your choices yet to be made, in much the way many of us are tormented by our past, wouldn't you start making better choices? You would see life as a whole, as  a long but finite period of time that is better filled with good memories (even those yet to happen) than painful ones.

Think of it this way. You are re-reading a book you really really enjoyed. It was filled with great parts, both painful and joyful. You cherish every bit of the book. And, as you re-read, you know what is going to happen but it doesn't diminish the act of re-reading, not experiencing the sad parts you know are going to happen, not experiencing the joyful parts.

Now, add in the mind bending time travel aspect that you can subtly influence what will happen by knowing what has happened, you can understand how this knowing this understanding of a new way of thinking is the true gift from the alien visitors. And this, this is what was so beautiful to me, that we can still offer a hopeful vision of a First Contact. We need a lot of hope right now.

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