Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Guest Post: The Movie 'Arrival' Made Me Sad And Angry


This guest post is by my former co-blogger at Commonwealth and Commonwealth, Captain Colossal aka Felix Kent.

I saw two movies this weekend and one of them was Arrival and it made me hopping mad, like walking-out-of-the-theater-with-my voice-getting-louder-and-louder mad. I was angry because I thought it was stupid, because I thought if I was going to see a stupid movie I wanted at least the pleasures of a stupid movie (montages! explosions! breakthroughs!) and also I had thought it was going to be good, partly because I think Jia Tolentino is a certified genius (see this for example) and she really liked it and partly because the first hour or so was really good.

Many of the reasons I didn’t like Arrival, by the way, involve what could be termed “plot-twists” or “surprises,” so, you know. Don’t read this if you haven’t seen Arrival but think you want to see Arrival and also care about not knowing in advance what happens.

In the movie Amy Adams learns to write an alien language in order to communicate with actual aliens who have come to Earth. One thing that the many positive reviews of the movie are right about is that it is, in fact, really really beautiful, and the aliens are cool-looking and convincingly alien. But. Learning this alien language allows Amy Adams to experience the world the way the aliens do, which involves, to put it crassly, seeing the future. Mostly her vision of the future involves a very narrow swath of her personal life, but also it takes in a future meeting with a Chinese general who is (in the movie’s present) the leading global voice for bombing the aliens. And she doesn’t want the aliens bombed, and in this vision of the future the general tells her that she convinced him to change his mind by calling him on his private number and saying to him the dying words of his wife. And he gives her that number and whispers the words to her. And then Amy Adams pops back into the present and calls him on said number and tells him those words and so he decides not to bomb the aliens and also all the governments across the land decide to work together and she teaches other people to write the alien language and, presumably, see the future.

And the problem I have with that set-up seems like maybe a small or nit-picky problem, equivalent to the fact that Amy Adams has security clearance as a result of having been asked to translate Farsi for the United States government two years earlier, which is odd, because you would think that the United States government would have a whole stable full of native Farsi speakers with pre-existing security clearances and would not need to turn to a random linguistics professor. But the Farsi problem I am prepared to ignore as plot-set-up hand-waving. The problem of the Chinese general goes deeper. Because the movie imagines that once we know the magic code — the right phone number, the right words — we can wipe out all the stubborn competing interests that make this world such a complicated place to navigate. But of course, that’s the opposite of true. The general wants the aliens bombed because he thinks that they are offering a weapon to different sectors of humanity, hoping to lead us to fight amongst ourselves. It does not seem to me that learning that the aliens can also see the future — and train us to do the same — will wipe out those suspicions. That is assuming that her use of his private number and the dying words of his wife does anything other than convince him that American intelligence is more efficient than previously supposed.

I don’t think it is possible to write anything these days without thinking about the incredibly horrifying choice that the United States made in its most recent election. I am an American and a proud one and also I am sick to my stomach not just over what is to come but also about what the choice itself says about my country, how loudly it proclaims our worst-kept secrets. And day after day I thumb through my deck of narratives explaining what happened, hoping to find one I can live with, exasperated by the explanations of others which, for various dark psychological reasons, work like nails on the chalkboard of my mind. But one thing that I believe really deeply is that it is not a matter of finding a magic word or the right phone number. That what is required is a lot of arduous painful work of resistance that will happen day after day and that may, in the end, succeed or fail, but will not do either miraculously.

The other movie I saw this weekend was Moonlight and I walked back from that movie along the river to my house and the water in the river seemed like it was almost too high to be held by the banks and the world seemed brand-new and my heart was constricted with fear for the characters of that movie, and so there was that, also.

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