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‘Arrival’ and the Perils of Science Fiction

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The critical reaction to Denis Villeneuve’s latest film, Arrival, can be summed up in one succinct headline, courtesy of Vanity Fair: “Arrival Is a Satisfying Emotional Drama, with Aliens.” Like a karate move, this eight-word sentence begins with an attack, marshalled by adjectives such as “satisfying” and “emotional,” and then retreats with a defensive maneuver, the comma before “with Aliens” behaving like a knifehand block, preventing wary readers from claiming the author’s a science fiction nerd.

This rhetorical movement — two steps forward praising the film, one step backward escaping its genre — pops up in countless pieces. Brian Lowry, for CNN, informs readers: “Villeneuve has engaged in a bit of sleight of hand, using what can be sold as a science-fiction premise to probe questions regarding our priorities — and humanity.” Leah Greenblatt, for Entertainment Weekly, writes: “Ultimately, it’s far less interested in galactic destiny than the infinite, uncharted landscape of the human heart.” And Will Leitch, for New Republic, explains: “The movie isn’t about aliens: It’s about how we communicate with one another, and how that communication is vital to our understanding of the world.”

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What is awkward about these reviews is how they oppose the film’s best qualities to its generic roots. In one corner, there are probed questions, coronary landscapes and understood worlds; in the other, there’s a science fiction premise, galactic destiny and aliens, all of which Arrival — we’re told — is not really about. These tropes are likened to a “sleight of hand,” a sneaky tactic to smuggle into multiplexes purportedly non-science-fiction-y meditations on priorities and humanity — except, of course, science fiction has been plumbing both topics for decades without needing to self-immolate in the process.

Arrival‘s octopus-like, levitating-ink-writing extraterrestrials are continually treated as an excuse, as kitschy elements external to the profound, human meaning being woven. Gaspar Zimerman, in the Argentine newspaper Clarín, writes that Arrival is “more a reflection on communication and the (im)possibilities of language than on the clash of civilizations,” even though these high-minded concepts and Derridean parentheses emerge precisely through the “clash of civilizations,” via humanity’s encounter with sheer otherness. Mayer Nissim, on Digital Spy, echoes both Zimerman and Leitch: “Like all the best sci-fi, Arrival isn’t really about aliens. It’s about people. It’s about ideas.” One feels obligated to respond: “Well, yeah, but it’s still about aliens. Really.” And when Barry Hertz, of The Globe and Mail, calls Arrival “a twisty, cerebral drama that just happens to involve aliens,” one hastens to point out that, without aliens, it would be an entirely different twisty, cerebral drama. Another movie, even.

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The problem is not that these critics misunderstand Arrival. (On the contrary, they write eloquently and gushingly about it.) Rather, they seem to misunderstand science fiction, finding room for surprise where there should be recognition of tropes, conventions and lineages. Janet Smith, from The Georgia Straight, applauds Villeneuve for his “unusual gifts,” which — she says– allow him to address military tactics, xenophobia and the use of language in war and peacetime despite “an outlandish story about alien encounters.” But identical premises have had such thematic pretensions since H. G. Wells sat down to write his thinly-veiled metaphor for British colonialism, The War of the Worlds, in the late 1800s. Meanwhile, on MovieWeb, Julian Roman exclaims: “Arrival is unlike any science fiction film you have seen. It builds like a slow boil into a deeply cerebral, emotionally expansive journey.” Which, in fact, sounds like plenty of science fiction produced over the years, from Alex Garland’s Ex Machina to George Lucas’s THX 1138, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker or Solaris, Chris Marker’s La Jetée, Konstantin Lopushanskiy’s Letters from a Dead Man, Shane Carruth’s Primer, Kristina Buožytė’s Vanishing Waves, and, of course, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Some of these are obscure, others are definitely not. But they’re part of what science fiction can do and has done.

Now, we all have our blind spots. (I’ve probably made my share of odd assumptions, simplifications and mistakes over the years.) And I’m not judging the work of these critics, because they’re only repeating an accepted wisdom that’s older and vaster than them, like the aliens in Arrival; an accepted wisdom from outer space that’s hard to place and understand; which sounds like gibberish, but has extraordinary power to subdue; which holds science fiction in its grasp and prevents it from liberating itself from the shackles of opprobrium and condescension. And this accepted wisdom, once we get past its monstrous form, tells us: “What’s good about science fiction is not actually science fiction, otherwise it wouldn’t be good.” In other words, what’s profound or tantalizing about Villeneuve’s epic must stand outside the genre. The movie doesn’t create meaning through genre, but rather, under its covers, an act of subterfuge. As Daniel Eagan writes, for Film Journal International, “Arrival is a message drama disguised as a science-fiction adventure.” The extraterrestrials are just a “disguise.” What’s really going on below all those spaceships is a “message drama.”

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Not all — or even most — critics have echoed these sentiments, but enough have that it’s worth grappling with such misconceptions. For years, directors like Kubrick and Tarkovsky and writers like Arthur C. Clarke, Ursula K. Le Guin, Stanisław Lem and the Strugatsky brothers have been using aliens not as an excuse but as a conduit for philosophical investigations. Their extraterrestrials, like those in Arrival, are not replaceable parts, they cannot be switched with something else. Indeed, it’s their presence, their enigma, what their strangeness means to us, how it makes us rediscover our own fundamental alienness — these are always essential factors in the narrative. It matters that they come from outer space, because that means they are both not human and also not from a place inhabited by humans. They are alive, but absolutely unknown and perhaps — as Stanisław Lem would say — “unknowable.”

In 1959, a few years before publishing his landmark Solaris, Lem wrote a short story titled “Invasion,” which is almost embarrassingly similar to Arrival. One fateful day, extraterrestrial objects land at different points across the globe. The army and a team of scientists assemble around one of the specimens in an isolated rural area. Predictably, the former want to nuke the weird craft while the latter want to investigate it. The crafts don’t do anything. They don’t attack and they don’t move. All they do is replicate, within their shells, vague forms copied from the outlying crash sites: human lovers incinerated by the unexpected landing, a tree branch, birds and farm animals. In the end, there’s no epiphany, as there is in Arrival. The alien mystery remains difficult to process. But it is, crucially, an alien mystery. It might have meaning to us beyond the specificity of the plot, since we’re asked to question “our priorities — and humanity,” but that’s just how good fiction usually works. Specifics give way to generalities without making the specifics disappear. It would be silly to argue, say, that Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov is truly about the timeless relationships between siblings and parents and not really about 19th century Russia, when it’s obviously about both (and much, much more besides). This same plasticity is present in the science fiction genre.

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Admittedly, when critics and wide swaths of the public think about science fiction, especially science fiction cinema, they’re not recalling Lem and Le Guin but Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day. If Arrival has been received as such a revelation, it’s because of how it compares with a certain brand of science fiction, the big-budget sort usually peddled by Hollywood. Indeed, a quick Google search of the phrase “Arrival anti-Independence Day” returns articles from scores of websites and blogs, from MovieWeb to The Hollywood Reporter, Hollywood Elsewhere, and Yahoo! News, while nearly all of the aforementioned pieces, in one way or another, mention Emmerich’s special-effects spectacular to describe what Arrival is not. Other critics, including those quoted above, include Villeneuve’s film within a larger family of serious-minded science fiction movies, among them The Day The Earth Stood Still, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Contact, Interstellar and Gravity, yet without ever coming to terms with just how typical Arrival is within the genre.

Yes, it’s remarkable that a nearly 50-million dollar movie goes all Rendezvous with Rama on us and patiently guides us through a sober scientific examination of alien structures and culture — but only up to a point. Even the linguistic theory it culls its twist from is old hat. (And no less entrancing and suggestive because of that, mind you.) The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has been a part of the science fiction stock-in-trade since at least the 1950s, when Jack Vance published The Languages of Pao, and explicitly appears in lingering classics like Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land and Samuel R. Delany’s Babel-17, as Anaea Lay points out in a thorough 2013 piece for Clarkesworld Magazine. And, of course, the novella Arrival’s based on, Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life, is nearly 20 years old by now.

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None of this should be taken to mean that Arrival is not brave and original. Surely, in a time of endless franchise behemoths, getting such a film greenlit and then actually completed, without having to cut corners and add too many explosions, and on a budget that’s far from outrageous but definitely not cheap, is nothing short of extraordinary. Yet what it opposes — what it stands outside of — is not science fiction but much of today’s mainstream cinema. Genres are fluid, fascinating things, expanding across years and decades, setting up rules, incorporating elements from other traditions and mediums, mixing and matching and evolving, and they must not be defined by whatever the marketplace currently makes hyper-visible. They have old, circuitous histories, which turn here and there and finally end up in a Villeneuve picture. To repurpose that Vanity Fair headline, we might say: “Arrival Is a Satisfying Emotional Science-Fiction Drama, with Money.”

Guido Pellegrini (@beaucine) has been writing about film in Spanish and English for more than 10 years. Born in Spain to Argentine parents, he grew up in California, where he majored in English. Guido now lives in Buenos Aires, where he completed a master’s degree in journalism. He likes to bridge his different cultural traditions in both thought and on the digital page. His work has appeared in The Daily Bruin, The House Next Door, Next Projection, Sound on Sight, Playtime Magazine, Olfa Magazine, and A Sala Llena. 

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