Last year I saw Sicario, and it struck me as a weird movie where the centre of the story wasn’t so much a woman as the way that a woman was gradually moved away from what was happening so that men could get on with doing something terrible. That might feel strangely evocative of things which happened this year, but that’s not what this post, or any other post, is going to be about.
Arrival is instead a movie with a woman right in the middle of it, and the focus never really comes off her. Luckily, they hired Amy Adams. I can’t prove this, but I think you could point a camera at Amy Adams while she was doing her nails and it would get you something unexpected which could make the centre of a whole movie. There are other people in the movie - Jeremy Renner and Forrest Whitaker, for example - but it really doesn’t matter, because they’re just guys around the edges of a woman trying to figure out what seven legged space aliens are talking about.
After I saw the movie, I read the Ted Chiang short story it’s based on, and it’s a surprisingly good adaptation. It’s not actually a faithful adaptation, because the story is much more low key and evocative. In the short story, Louise is trying to come to terms with what she learned about the world and what matters when she was trying to learn a foreign language. In the movie, inevitably, Louise is trying to save the world. Because it’s apparently impossible to get funding for a science fiction movie, no matter how simple, unless it involves the fate of the world. Which has to rest on one lone maverick resisting the patriarchy.
But, I hear you say, Hollywood won’t give you the money to make a spectacle unless you give them a story they can understand. Sure, yeah, right. But the source text isn’t spectacular. A faithful adaptation could have been done for Doctor Who money, or even Midnight Special money. Villeneuve could have put the exact story Chiang wrote right onto the screen, and with Amy Adam carrying the narrative, it would still have worked. However, I suspect that it might still have made a loss, because the general public won’t go to an SF movie unless it looks spectacular. John and I were in a packed house, which wasn’t the case when we went to Midnight Special.
And although I might have preferred a low key movie, something truer to the spirit of the story, that’s not to say it isn’t a good looking movie; the spectacle works, and the thriller-y moments probably do make it a more audience friendly film. The alien ships are startling, and they’re ambiguous; you can see them as whatever you want to. And while the alien writing doesn’t make a button of sense, it’s still great looking when it happens. And for all I know, it’s an alien powerpoint presentation and I shouldn’t be as worried as I was about how perfect coffee ring splotches appear out of nowhere and float in the mist. On the one hand, impossible to figure out how it happened, on the other hand, terrible as a way of writing anything so that people could read it. But if you imagine it as seven legged Steve Jobs making a pitch, a little less idiotic. Of course, there’s another explanation, but that would be giving the game away about what the movie is really about.
The real reason I wish they had filmed the story as written is that where the movie works best is as a meditation on loss, and the way in which the grief of loss is tied up so completely in the joy of all that came before the loss. What matters, in the end, is the totality of the experience, and how you cannot have one without the other. A movie which could have devoted itself entirely to that might not have been a spectacle, but it would have been spectacular.