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‘Arrival’ almost hit the mark

This is a refreshingly new film about aliens, but why does it downplay physicists to celebrate linguists?

Arrival is perhaps one of the better films of 2016. I liked Dennis Villeneuve’s Sicario and Prisoners and my inclination to watch Arrival was primarily driven by the presence of aliens and the fact that I wanted to see what he would do with a sci-fi film since he is about to take on the sequel to one of my favourites in the genre, Blade Runner. (Please note that spoilers follow.)

I am not disappointed with his directing by any measure, if anything the story was weak. I think Mr Villeneuve will do just fine with the Blade Runner sequel and I look forward to it. The acting was great in Arrival and Jóhan Jóhansson’s layered, experimental music was flawless in the way it set the tone for the entire film. (Heptapod B is my favourite.)

In a film about aliens visiting earth, though, you would expect a physicist to be in the spotlight, but Arrival is a different kind of film about our first contact with extraterrestrials. It is linguistics and not physics that plays a role here and that was refreshing, but I took issue with how the physicist was portrayed in whatever little part he played.

Amy Adams did a splendid job as usual. She was believable, understandable and connectable as a linguist trying to understand an alien species with unusually intricate scripts that they “produced” with surprising ease. Normally, I would commend Jeremy Renner’s performance as well, but it was uninspiring to say the least.

Perhaps we are simply used to expecting a scientist play a big role in a film with aliens, but even if he had, Mr Renner’s character (and not the actor himself) was not fully baked. As for the physics itself, it would be foolish to go into the cinema not expecting the filmmakers to take extreme liberties with things like gravity (which changes from one part of one corridor in the alien spaceship to the next) and time (non-linear blah, blah, blah), one of these is just a decorative idea and the other is a major plot point.

There is such a huge build up to the climax that I found it to be a sort of a dud. If aliens are giving us a secret, powerful weapon, one would hope it had nothing to do with controlling time because Luc Besson already did that with Lucy, and further one would hope this powerful weapon would not be given to one person because, if history has taught us anything, all power with one person ends in either awkwardness, dictatorship, genocide or all three. And Luc Besson already did that with Lucy.

But this flailing climax makes for increased retrospection in certain other scenes, and Mr Villeneuve takes his time, coaxing viewers along slowly, giving them enough hints and managing to make linguistics an interesting replacement for blazing guns and laser swords. It also helps immensely that time is treated as a non-linear, messy pile of events rather than as causes and effects, but this gets muddy right at the end where Amy Adams’ Louise Banks glimpses at a future event to prevent a certain present cause of future war making time linear again.

The moment when you realise that Banks’s “dreams” are really visions of her future, and the moment when those vertical ellipsoid spaceships take to the air, rotate and look like those loveable flying saucers we have all dreamt of (no?) are the most memorable parts of the film. But the excitement about the visions are short-lived when you realise, almost immediately after, that Mr Renner’s Ian Donnelly is in them and then pretend for the rest of the film like you never expected him to be there until the film makes its big reveal.

As much as I would like to steer clear of any criticisms I have about the portrayal of physics and physicists in Arrival, I find myself writing these next lines anyway. Aliens who cannot comprehend mathematics? Absurd. That space ship did not talk itself into inter-galactic flight; they used mathematics alright. I appreciate using linguistics to understand aliens and I think it is an avenue worth exploring, but do not abandon physics just yet because that would be foolish.

Ian Donnelly’s cheeky line, “I’ve had my head tilted up to the stars for as long as I can remember … what surprised me the most … wasn’t meeting them. It was meeting you.”, is something no physicist on such a life-altering event as being on the brink of alien contact would ever say. Neither is dismissing the importance of other scientific/non-scientific fields, no matter how often fictional physicists are portrayed this way, but I digress.

There will always be liberties taken where science-fiction films are involved, and the measure is not so much about realism as it is about how well fact and fiction are balanced. The finer line between the two the better, because we are all (physicists especially) willing to let our imagination go wild, away from reality, but not so much that it becomes ridiculously comical. And Arrival gets this line just right. Interstellar is another film I wrote about sometime last year praising its use of science.

The film is visually stunning, especially the initial scenes when you first see the spaceship hovering in mid-air. Just how the language is deciphered is not clearly shown: there is an explainer that they write all parts of their sentence together rather than chronologically like we do, hinting at Banks’s later claim that language makes our perception of time linear. This is an actual idea known as the Sapir-Whorf theory but, as far as I know, the theory does not imply language can change our perception of the physical world.

All this makes Banks’s claim a fair albeit weak one before more fantastical theories physicists already work on today. So here is a thought for future sci-fi writers: visit a physicist and take your pick from our bank of mind-blowing, untestable and therefore unaccepted theories because they are a great mixture of futuristic science that can mesh well with emotions without giving up on science itself. But until then, I would welcome a well-balanced film like Arrival any day so long as no field is downplayed.

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