Arrival

I don’t know’s on third

arrivalDenis Villeneuve’s Arrival is probably the best first contact movie I’ve ever seen.  There’s no abduction, no galactic civil war, no silly “grays,” and no sainted white man who has to save the Earth.  In fact, there’s only one real character: Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguist who is summoned to translate the language of an alien race that has recently landed spacecraft in disparate locations across the globe.  Despite the fact that the militaries of every nation have more or less quarantined the “shells” from the public, conflict doesn’t seem imminent; everyone still thinks it would be a good idea to see what the aliens want first.

Louise’s present narrative, in which she teams with physicist Ian Donnelly  (Jeremy Renner), straightforward military grunt Weber (Forest Whitaker), and antagonistic CIA stooge David Halpern (Michael Stuhlbarg) to communicate with the aliens before the rest of the world – particularly China and their de facto leader, hair-trigger General Shang (Tzi Ma) – decides that it would be less trouble to open fire, is percussed by intermittent visions of her daughter’s life.  The flashbacks (or are they?) begin with a joyous birth, meaningful moments, and all the stuff you expect from movies-apologizing-for-reality montages, but then it becomes clear that Louise’s daughter, Hannah, died in adolescence from an inoperable cancer.  The past seems to weigh heavily on Louise, who struggles for the freedom to work in the quarantined shell zone, which is kept air-tight by the army.

The aliens themselves, called “heptapods” for their seven limbs, are one of the film’s greatest achievements, visually and in terms of originality.  Absent are the expected bipedal war-monger aliens who either possess convenient translators or just want to rip into us instead of talking.  The heptapods, who are so alien I can barely describe them (maybe picture a benevolent, organic version of Mass Effect‘s “Reapers”) speak in some kind of starfish language, but actually communicate via their writing system, which is more or less a magical ink that hangs in the air for a moment, and then vanishes.  Louise, chosen for a reason, slowly begins to break down this system and learns to introduce herself to the aliens, then to ask them simple questions, deciding to hold off on the “big one,” which is of course “Why are you here?”

I call Louise the only character because the others, while competently performed, exist to provide assorted foils to her.  She’s the one whose thoughts matter, whose struggle is real, and whose painful memories we have access to.  Whitaker’s character just wants to get this job finished and go home, preferably without getting court-marshaled for letting Louise go too far (though it is a bit convenient that she ended up supervised by someone so understanding, rather than Petraeus or Major Paine or some shit).  Stuhlbarg’s character is there because there needs to be an asshole government employee who reaches his boiling point before anyone else (and if Boardwalk Empire taught us anything, it’s that Michael Stuhlbarg is good at being reserved for a long time and then exploding).  Jeremy Renner isn’t actually in the film too much, which isn’t a bad thing, as his character isn’t important (honestly, for all Donnelly is good for, he could have been played by an extra whose face you never see – he serves the same purpose as Topher Grace’s character in Interstellar, although that movie seems extraordinarily silly compared to this one).

The titular “arrival” really has nothing to do with aliens.  Consider the fact that the source material is a novella called “Story of Your Life.” As it turns out (spoilers ahead), the heptapods do not even experience time the same way we do.  Instead, they experience all time periods at once, knowing from the time they are born exactly how and when they will die.  They’ve come to Earth because they have foreseen an undisclosed cataclysm that will impact them in three thousand years, and already know that they will need the help of humans to deal with it (sidenote: I’m not sure they should bank on humans being around for that long).  Therefore, they’ve come to Earth to gain our trust now.  In order to communicate this to the rest of the world, however, Louise needs to absorb this ability from the heptapods, and essentially travel to the future to stop Shang from obliterating China’s heptapod shell.  The kicker: that’s what we’ve been experiencing the whole time.  The visions of Hannah haven’t happened yet.

While the film is saying something about free will, it isn’t just asking whether you’d take the same path if you knew what was going to happen to you in the future (although it asks Louise to make that choice).  In a film like Another Earth, where a mirror planet’s versions of all of us have followed the same narrative right up until becoming aware of one another (essentially saying that we were all slaves to our destiny until that moment) Arrival (and its source story) assert that free will means not changing the timeline when tempted to.  In the original story, these ideas are conveyed via tenses – future tense for the daughter visions, past tense for the heptapod interactions – but you don’t have to study Fermat’s Principle to get it: Louise’s choice to conceive Hannah despite knowing how the girl’s life will end confirms the existence of choice itself, and that such a thing can seem monumental in the face of an inevitable future space war is amazing. Would we call it a “pro-choice” film, then?

arrival2c_movie_posterArrival (2016); based on the story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang; screenplay by Eric Heisserer; directed by Denis Villeneuve; starring Amy Adams.

 

 

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Interstellar

Space magic solves everything

interstellarChristopher Nolan’s Interstellar starts as simply another Dead Mom narrative with a throwaway title, orbiting a part-time Boring Hero with a heart of gold who only wants the best for his children.  This character, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), who apparently has no first name, reminisces about the days when he was a NASA test pilot, before humanity screwed up the Earth so badly that we were forced to become an entirely agrarian society.  He speaks most of this in overt exposition to Donald (John Lithgow), his father-in-law, who shares a rural homestead with Cooper and his kids, Tom (Timothée Chalamet) and (more importantly) Murphy, also known as Murph (Mackenzie Foy, who will eventually grow up to be Jessica Chastain).  Murph is a borderline genius for her age, and her current project is an attempt to scientifically prove that a “ghost,” for lack of a better word, is sending her messages by altering the dust on her bedroom floor and knocking books off her shelf.  Cooper and Murph, bored with the farming life and convinced (whether through blind hope or something else) that the planet can be saved, follow coordinates provided by the “ghost,” which lead them to the HQ of an underground organization that turns out to be the thought-to-be-defunct NASA.

There’s some interesting background here.  In the gap since the golden age of space travel, the Apollo missions (including the first moon landing) have been discredited as clever propaganda, and Murph’s schoolteachers consider her insistence that humanity has traveled to the moon analogous to sharing porn with her classmates.  The idea is to encourage children to want to work on saving this planet, rather than fantasize about traveling away from it.  Very good point, actually.  But the film does not want us to side with the teachers, and makes quite clear to us that Earth is doomed.  At the new NASA HQ, Cooper is convinced at ridiculous speed (considering the pacing up to this point) by Professor Brand (Michael Caine) and his brilliant daughter, Dr. Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway), to pilot an incredibly advanced spaceship, the Endurance (modeled after the International Space Station) to travel through a wormhole believed to have been placed near Saturn by another galactic civilization that wishes to save humanity, and through this wormhole, find a planet that can support human life.  A crew of other astronauts named Edmunds, Miller, and Mann (the latter’s picture is mysteriously the only one not shown) previously traveled through the wormhole to investigate three potential candidate planets, and the deal was this: if they landed on a planet that was not viable, they would remain there and perish so that no resources would be wasted rescuing them.  Cooper and Amelia, along with Romilly (David Gyasi) and Doyle (Wes Bentley) and two robots called TARS and CASE, will visit these planets one at a time and confirm their viability.  The drama at home, however, trumps all of the sci-fi prep: Murph is devastated that Cooper is abandoning her, and it’s hard not to be on her side, even after all the dire hypothesizing by the roundtable of talking heads.  The scene in which Cooper accepts the mission is needed to begin the film’s main arc, but it’s a synthetic transition, as rushed and clumsy as an equal moment in a superhero origin story, complete with the audience realizing that this was a much better narrative before the hero gained his powers and everything went to sci-fi land.

Through one thing and another, the astronaut crew crosses the wormhole and visits Miller’s planet for only a few hours, though its proximity to a black hole causes time to pass much more quickly.  It’s close by and will not use much fuel to reach.  However, the classic “lost contact with operative” trope plays out predictably: long story short, Planet Miller is not viable.  It’s 100% ocean.  Nightmare fuel comes in the form of mountainesque tidal waves that seem to target whatever has just landed on the planet’s surface.  The whole scenario is not unlike similar planets seen in other sci-fi, including a Mass Effect mission (apparently, filmmaker after filmmaker underestimates how popular those games are).  Because of the time dilation, twenty-three years pass for Romilly, who is still onboard.  No word on what he ate and drank during that time.  It’s supposed to be a big moment, but the only difference in Romilly is that he’s grown a few gray beard hairs, plus he hasn’t figured out much of any use (not to mention that the film’s formula requires him to be the next bumped-off crew-member).

While all of this happens, Murph, now played by the prolific Jessica Chastain, remains on Earth, not knowing whether her father is alive, and still harboring a grudge for the way he left her.  One of the film’s strongest scenes involves Murph sending Cooper a message in which she reminds him of his promise to return home by the time the two of them are the same age – well, today, she’s the age he was when he left.  Outside of grieving over him, Murph has been working with NASA to figure out how humanity can collectively escape Earth’s gravitational pull if they indeed find another planet.  Brand, though, on his deathbed, admits that humanity can never escape without data from a singularity behind a black hole.  Murph reveals this to Amelia and Cooper, who argue about which planet to visit next, and ultimately decide on Mann, even though (or, on another level, specifically because) all narrative signs point to this being a terrible idea (see Principle of the Inept Adventurer).  Mann’s planet, of course, is a frozen wasteland, and Mann himself (played by Matt Damon) simply couldn’t go through with dying there per his mission, so he lied about the planet’s viability in order to be rescued.  Some truly terrific sequences, absent of the ridiculous CG most films would use, take place, and our characters are left with one choice: figure out some way to get behind the black hole and transmit the data back to Earth (did anyone think they wouldn’t have to do this?).

The film’s science, preposterous as its plot is, is relatively sound, especially considering that a cosmologist (Kip Thorne) birthed the idea for the film with producer Lynda Obst, and acted as consultant on it, often having to talk Nolan out of making the story any wackier.  While much of the space adventure is based upon hypotheticals (for example, an actual wormhole has never been observed, but given what we know about relativity and gravity, it is hypothetically possible).  The ultimate result, however, especially what’s behind the black hole’s event horizon, relies on molding the science around plot contrivance, so while watching Matthew McConaughey float around a five-dimensional space library wherein time is not linear is pretty satisfying in terms of achieving a profound conclusion to the “fi” questions of the film, it renders keeping track of the “sci” parts ineffectual.

The screenplay, penned by Jonathan and Christopher Nolan, is much the same as any Dark Knight or Inception script.  No character speaks if it’s not either exposition or a seed planted for something later in the plot, and no one is ever wrong when they present some big idea (for example, Anne Hathaway’s character gives a lengthy and impassioned monologue about how “love” might be the key to solving everything in the universe because it’s an emotion/experience we don’t fully understand, before being dismissed by the predominately male crew).  Nolan’s oft-criticized female characters become more in Interstellar, but only marginally and not necessarily in the right way: it’s as if Nolan has responded to this criticism by having his female characters do more for the plot instead of actually characterizing them.  For example, Murph is continually emphasized as being the central character of the film, upon whom everything relies and whose intellect and accomplishments everyone reveres, but she actually doesn’t have many scenes by herself, and for being played by three exceptional actresses (the third being the magnificent Ellen Burstyn in a cameo), the only parts of her 80+ year life that are important enough to include in the film are the ones that revolve around her attachment to her father (read: Hollywood Daddy Issues).  We don’t see anything between Cooper leaving and Murph sending him a message for the first time (when she’s in her thirties).  We see nothing of her relationship with rando Getty (Topher Grace); just an impulsive kiss, and then it’s fifty years later and they have a gaggle of adult offspring.  Amelia, Hathaway’s character, the only female astronaut, operates entirely on emotion, in stark contrast to pragmatist Cooper, and she plays second fiddle to him throughout the journey (even if she ends up being right about which planet is best to visit, Cooper never acknowledges that he got someone killed and wasted valuable equipment and resources by heading to Mann’s planet when Amelia wanted to go to Edmunds’).  She’s also got that Ripley 2.0 hairdo going, similar to Sandra Bullock in last year’s Gravity (and it’s difficult not to compare that film to this one).  It’s as if the filmmakers are trying to placate those of us who consistently bemoan the absence of layered female characters in blockbuster films, but no amount of space stations named after Murph can stifle this question: why isn’t Murph the main character?  I.e. the astronaut who actually goes on the dangerous adventure to save humanity?  Jessica Chastain is one of the most adept and charismatic actors of any gender we have right now, and Anne Hathaway, juggernaut of nuance and onscreen honesty, is much more than a soapy foil to the brooding bro.  If we needed Murph on Earth, Amelia (or, say, Murph’s mother, if we needed Amelia in space) could easily have helmed the voyage.  Too often in Nolan’s films, the women are simply opposites of each other (e.g. Inception, wherein Marion Cotillard played a full-figured, exotic beauty against Ellen Page’s skinny teenage nerd/genius) who frame the male hero and affect him in the various ways he needs to be affected in order to keep, y’know, hero-ing.

Beyond that, while the film tries its hardest to dodge various genre trappings, it falls into twice as many and forgets about plenty of other ones.  It’s one thing to say your film is inspired by 2001 and Metropolis; it’s another to have the same basic thing happen at the end (think about the ways in which Dave transcends human existence, then watch Cooper’s tumble into the black hole again).  The film wants TARS and CASE to remind you of HAL, and thus fear that one of them will go rogue and try to murder the crew, while the dashing usual-lead Matt Damon is plotting carnage right there in front of you.  But none of this is surprising because virtually every sci-fi adventure since Event Horizon (and plenty before) has that character – the brilliant scientist, the “best of us,” who actually turns out to be a self-interested nut-job and tries to kill everyone – and from the moment Mann is mentioned, it’s pretty obvious that he’s the last person who’s going to be of any help (’cause this galaxy ain’t big enough for two rugged male leads).

Where Gravity’s most telling moments were silent shots of Sandra Bullock’s feet, Interstellar talks its themes at you.  All of the conversations are well-acted and nice to listen to, but they’re not actually conversational; rather, there is nothing said that you do not need to remember in order to “get it” later.  None of this is to say that the film is plodding, or trapped under mumble-science like Primer, or in any way difficult to understand, but it shelves itself next to a thousand family films with identical plots (and I understand why Nolan would want his film to be thought of amongst memories of Jurassic Park and Blade Runner, but one can do that without either remaking parts of them or defining the new film by what the old ones aren’t).

All said, I don’t have to do the usual roundup of unanswered/rhetorical/paradoxical questions I usually need to do with films like this (see Snowpiercer for perhaps the greatest litany so far) because Nolan takes every measure to ensure that the science (fictional or not) makes sense in-universe, and that the characters’ decisions (mostly) make sense in context, even if they’re not given much time to make them.  We’re invited to participate in the characters’ horror, guilt, and love, albeit only when convenient for what the filmmakers want us to care about, but it’s there on the table, whereas many genre filmmakers would withhold vital info for dramatic effect (a greenhorn’s flourish that accomplishes the exact opposite).  Furthermore, Chastain, McConaughey, and Hathaway believe their own characters, so as “stock” as they can be, it’s easy to believe in their existence – at least for a few hours.

Interstellar (2014); written by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan; directed by Christopher Nolan; starring Matthew McConaughey, Jessica Chastain, and Anne Hathaway.