Thoughts on Arrival (2016)

arrivalI have been on a bit of a sci-fi kick these days. I think my escapism is acting up because work is so unfulfilling. Hopefully, that will change soon. I actually plan on moving back to Massachusetts in August, though if I am lucky, that process might happen sooner! I never thought I would be happy about going back north, but I miss my friends there, and in my life these days, friends are few and far between.

This week, in addition to Passengers (2016), I also watched Arrival (2016). The latter is rather conflicting. On the one hand, I think there is a lot, A LOT, of racism, colonialism, and xenophobia going on in this film. It was very distracting. On the other hand, there is this beautiful message somewhat nestled in with all the racism and xenophobia, and the fact of the matter is, I do think it would have been a more believable message if it had been two people of color playing the lead. But with two white leads, it just seemed like an appropriation (yet again) of Eastern religions.

First, it was incredibly frustrating to watch so much colonialist propaganda come out of a black man’s mouth. My best example is at 40:36, Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) literally says, “And remember what happened to the Aborigines [of Australia]. A more advanced race nearly wiped them out.”

I don’t know about y’all, but internally, I was screaming when I heard this line. Bravo, white supremacy. Your strategy is truly formidable. Whichever asshole put this line into the script made sure to hide the white colonizer behind the black man in a military uniform. If we dissect this scene, we’ll see the truth of it, no? First off, this movie was directed by some white Canadian liberal (Denis Villeneuve), so the military in this movie is a projection of what white liberals think they are doing (I’m not pro-military when I say these things, but I do believe white liberals frequently blame the military for problems that they themselves cause). You can tell by the over-the-top chauvinism, sexism and, well, militarism of these men who represent “military”. It reminded me somewhat of the military in Avatar (2009), and also the honest trailer of Avatar created by Screen Junkies on Youtube, where you will recall the iconic line “military bad…trees good”.

Personally, I have no connections to the military, besides a very small number of acquaintances, so I have neither the knowledge nor experience to comment directly on their operations. However, in this particular case, I do kind of chafe for more nuance. Just a little bit.

Furthermore, I think the fact that this specific line is said by a black character is an indicator of how frequently black men are used to uphold white supremacy. (If you want more examples of how the hell this happens, read Ain’t I A Woman by bell hooks). Frankly, I think it’s really unfair that Colonel Weber is portrayed as a sort of brainwashed simpleton. As though black men, or men in the army, aren’t capable of independent thought? (I know that’s probably a much more complicated concept than what I just wrote there) I probably don’t need to mention how harmful it is that this is now one of the representatives of black men in film. I don’t, right? Okay, well I mentioned it, so now y’all know.

Sadly, this is not the only example of racism in the film. I think one of the ironies of this movie is that China is portrayed exactly the way America actually is. Let me list the ways: hairpin trigger militarism, stark aggression toward the unknown and/or alien life forms (symbol for immigrants much?), distrust of every other political entity in existence, refusal to listen to reason, unreasonable masculine leadership, somehow more powerful than every other country on earth (for some reason when they militarize, all other countries do as well?). Does this seem a little inaccurate to you? Don’t we know a country that seems kinda like that? Hm, I wonder where it is…

Furthermore, (UGH) I’m frustrated by the paternalism of Louise Banks (Amy Adams) when discussing how the Chinese communicate with the aliens. (I also think it’s really interesting that this line was planned for a character who, in many other scenes, is interrupted or talked down to. She is the only woman working on this operation and was the person designated to say this line. I’m very confused sometimes by the scripting of this movie). At some point, one of the characters reports that General Shang (Tzi Ma) has been using a mahjong set to communicate with the aliens. Dr. Banks implies that the Chinese will only view the aliens as competitors because they are using a game to communicate with them.

Let’s dissect the myriad assumptions made in this scene. (That too, I feel like it’s somewhat disloyal to the character to have given her this line.) First, I think it can be reasonably said that mahjong tiles can have more than one purpose. There are 136 tiles to a set (usually), and they are a bit like Western playing cards. There are 4 “suits” so to speak and 9 numbers in each suit. You can represent a lot with a game that has 36 possible symbols.

The statement seems to reek of American ethnocentrism. By that I mean, the ubiquitous my-way-is-better-than-yours mentality that a lot of people in America have. But here’s the catch–Dr. Banks is a professor of linguistics, a person purportedly capable of deciphering complex messages in languages like Farsi and Mandarin Chinese. Why would a person with that kind of depth say something so shallow? I swear, Eric Heisserer. From one writer to another, GET YOUR SHIT TOGETHER.

If we want to extend the metaphor of the movie to beings here on earth, I feel like this is Hollywood’s idealized version of how Americans interact with foreigners. Except in real life, it goes nothing like this. Immigrants are not greeted with kind, understanding linguistics and physics professors who want to understand how they communicate. They’re usually greeted with hostility, ignorance, and frequently, military force. So while I feel like maybe the military part is not wrong, I also feel like it’s highly implausible and unrealistic to act as though Americans would treat unknown entities as anything other than creatures in a zoo.

In addition, there is a very interesting commentary being made in the film about the relationship between military and the academy. I noted that the reason why Banks is involved in this whole scheme is because of her past work with the military. Is this the role people want academics to play in society?

I do think Adams is fitting in her role. Unlike Jennifer Lawrence in Passengers (2016), I felt like Adams’ personality works to her advantage in this role. She is frequently cast as a soft-spoken person, and it seems to work as, in this movie, she is frequently the voice of reason amidst a gang of unqualified hotheads. I’m also glad she didn’t turn into Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) from King Kong (2005), though she did at times seem to suffer from the same special snowflake syndrome as Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) in Twilight (2008) or Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) in Hunger Games (2012). By that, I mean that I’m glad she didn’t turn into Dr. Louise Banks, Brave White Woman and Protector of Aliens. She played a realistic role in which life continued on earth after her encounter with the heptapods. I suppose I’m still not convinced about why she was “chosen” by the heptapods. Yes, she was the only person who made a realistic effort to communicate with them (and all the men including Donnelly were too pig-headed to be capable of this). Still though. White woman. Fantasy/sci-fi movie. “Chosen One” role. Seems like a trope.

Lastly, I do think there is actually this lovely, subtle point being made in the movie about language. Banks is able to see the future by learning the language of the heptapods. I also like that the future and the past are not entirely clear in the movie. I know it probably infuriates people who need a more obvious plot, but I like the open-endedness and the possibilities of interpretation. I also like the implications of knowing the future. It seems as though it brings people a sort of serenity, as opposed to the anxiety of needing to change what will happen. It seems as though clairvoyance brings Louise implacable tranquility. She does not care about competing, changing herself, avoiding what is to come, being something else–experiences that I think American capitalism necessitates. It doesn’t matter what she does because the future is unyielding in its certainty.

I don’t think I have done this movie much justice in this review, but then again, I think this movie grapples with a lot of complex things (and also does not grapple with some things it really should have). I haven’t even touched the linguistics piece (these coffee-mug-stain sentences that the heptapods write–I do wonder where those came from), or how language affects memory (huge implications). I will say, though, I appreciate how provocative it was, in spite of its shortcomings.


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