Arrival – A Case of Déjà vu

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Walking into Arrival, directed by Denis Villeneuve and written by Eric Heisserer, I only knew a little about the movie. I knew that it was based on the short story “Story of Your Life” by author Ted Chiang which I have not read (it’s on the shelf). I knew that it was starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner. I was pleasantly surprised to see Forest Whitaker around the ten minute mark. I knew this was going to be a movie about first contact with aliens. And yet as the movie began, I couldn’t help but feel I’d seen this all before. I mean that as the highest of praise, incidentally.

Twelve alien space ships land on Earth. Nobody knows why. Professor of linguistics “Louise Banks” (Amy Adams) is recruited by the US government and sent to the alien arrival sight in Montana, where she is partnered with “Ian Donnelly” (Jeremy Renner), a theoretical physicist. Together, they are charged with finding a way to communicate with the visitors.

As Louise and Ian learn to communicate with the Heptapods (cheekily dubbed Abbot and Costello by Ian), Louise begins to uncover the Heptapods’ strange circular written language, which has no beginning or end, and begins to have flashbacks to her daughter Hannah, who died of an incurable disease.

Right away this is where Arrival separates itself from so many other “first contact” movies. In Louise and Ian, I can see every goofy pair of scientists in science fiction, sidelined as the comic relief while someone brash and bold fires a rocket wrapped in the American flag to save the day. But not this time. Arrival has billed itself as a film of intelligence, and it remains so to a fault.

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But still, Arrival is intensely aware that it belongs to a canon. Maybe not to everyone in the audience, but to someone like me, who lives and breathes science fiction of this nature to the point that it’s tattooed on my body, I can see where all the elements come from. I can hear Close Encounters of the Third Kind in sound effects of the Heptapods. I can see 2001: A Space Odyssey and Interstellar in the aesthetics of the alien ships. I can see The War of the Worlds in the design of the aliens, and District 9 in the TV news footage of the world’s reaction to their arrival. I can even see Independence Day in the scale of the story. Hell, I can see E.T. in Louise’s growing connection to the Heptapods, and Slaughterhouse Five in the nature of the aliens themselves.

I can see where all these elements of famous science fiction staples were drawn together to make this film, but this is far from a bad thing. Sharply aware of the pastiche of its particular sub-genre, Arrival focuses on what makes it so smart.

Every shot of this film is beautiful. From a spaceship hovering over a field in Montana, to Amy Adams framed by the sunset streaming through her backyard window, to the interior of the spaceship itself, every frame suggests a world that is vast and expansive.

Louise is an interesting character. She’s a workaholic, a loner, has a sense of humor, empathy, and everything else that an interesting lead in a movie like this needs to have. The only thing that stretches my suspension of disbelief when it comes to Louise is how nice her house is. I’m not sure what school she’s a professor of linguistics at, but there is no way on Earth (pun intended) that she can afford a beautiful modern home in the woods overlooking mountains. No way.

In Arrival, we get two stories, and both are equally interesting. We get Louise and Ian learning how to communicate with Abbot and Costello. The movie spends a lot of time and energy on discussing the Heptapods’ written language. They write in beautiful, arching spheres, with no sense of linear time. Within their language, past, present and future happen all at once. Louise and Ian are learning to communicate with their Heptapod ship, even as eleven other nations around the world begin to communicate with their own ships. Tensions mount as the nations of the world start refusing to share. Arrival becomes a story about overcoming differences, and learning to cooperate with one another.

For those with an eagle eye, the first time the Heptapod language is explained, a big twist is given away. At least, part of it is. Yes, I have no problem saying that there is a time travel element to this story. No, I’m not going to tell you what it is.

The second narrative is about tragedy, as we follow the story of how Louise’s daughter Hannah grew up, why her father left them, and how Hannah dies. This is about a grieving mother learning to cope with the death of her daughter, and understand that even though death is inevitable the time before death is still worthwhile.

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Arrival is a story about grief, and making connections, and aliens, and time. It never fails to be smart, it never devolves into the action-oriented blockbuster format of so many others, it never falters in the ideals that it strives to put on screen. It is everything that a modern science fiction movie should be.

If you want to go see a movie that does science fiction right, with intelligence and integrity, is beautiful for every frame of its runtime, and might make you cry like the little baby we all secretly still are, Arrival is the movie for you.

-Contributed by Ben Ghan

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Shadowhunters and the Hunt for the Demon of Profit

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image source: variety.com

Book-to-movie adaptations have always been a natural indicator of a literary work’s popularity.

When cinema was only beginning, black-and-white adaptations of Shakespeare’s work served as an indication of what society perceived as “good” literature from an academic standpoint. Today, that hardly seems to be the case.

Movies and TV shows show us that today’s focus is a bit less on the quality of scripts and a bit more on the quantity of bills. The adaptation of literary works is no longer a novelty, translated to add dimension to the original series. Instead, it’s all about taking a series as far as it can financially go.

Cassandra Clare’s New York Times’ bestselling series, The Mortal Instruments, shamelessly mixes many common (and more importantly, popular) speculative elements. From werewolves and vampires to the legend of the Nephilim, the spectrum is quite wide.

First, we have a standard love triangle between the female protagonist, Clary Fairchild, her best-friend-turned-vampire, Simon Lewis, and the Shadowhunter (read: demon slayer) Jace Wayland. There is also a romance between Alec Lightwood and Magnus Bane, which explores not only the issue of racism in the division between the higher Shadowhunter society from the lower shadow world, but also addresses duties to one’s family in the case of Alec’s homosexuality.

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source: pinterest.com

The series came out at a time when the hype was still in full swing for the more familiar aspects of the speculative realm, and the call for more vampires and werewolves, along with the growing demand for magicians and fairies, caused publishers to narrow their vision.

It’s safe to say that the original 2013 film adaptation of the first book, then, did not come as a surprise. Not only did it guarantee that many fans would see it, but it would also act as an extra push for the book series, whose position on the bestsellers’ list began to grow shaky in 2012. The film’s poor reception, however, demonstrated differently.

The movie received mixed reviews and failed to recoup the budget, causing directors to speculate whether or not a second movie would be released. Petitions were posted online for sometime by fans who trilled their undying love for the series, wanting to see more. Their request was partially satisfied when an announcement was made stating there would, in fact, be a TV adaptation of the series starting from scratch, with a new cast and a different interpretation of the plot.

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image source: geekenstein.com

I will readily admit that I have been guilty of falling into the trap of popular series. I jumped onto the bandwagon with The Hunger Games as soon as the first book came out. Others, such as the more recent Divergent, I hoped to stay away from, but after watching the first two movies my curiosity got the better of me and I did end up reading the books.

With The Mortal Instruments, however, my patience ran out after the first two books, and after hearing that the series’ immense popularity caused Clare to add three more books to her initial trilogy, I was adamant in my refusal to touch it. Yet I must also admit that I saw the movie when it came out a few years ago and (perhaps against my better judgement) just finished the first season (yes, there’s a second season coming next year) of the TV show.

Why? Because of the curiosity to see what came of these attempts.

I thought to myself, was it worse than the books? Was it better?

Turns out it wasn’t great. For me, The Mortal Instruments proved itself to be a case study of sorts in a discussion of profit and the coexistence between the film and publishing industries. It’s partially understandable that a TV adaptation, rather than a movie franchise, allowed for a new start and possible changes in the way the original plot was presented.

The irony lies, however, in the similar reception the show, though some credit should be given to the overall higher reviews. The insistence on running a second season, given the way in which the first sloppily crammed subplots and events from various books into one, is the more puzzling aspect.

Perhaps we should be worried more about addressing a different kind of “dark force” that books skid around or fall prey to: the allure of franchising and riding the wave of popularity. While there are certainly some interesting plot points and witty dialogues within the books, there is not much that The Mortal Instruments, along with its tangle of prequels, sequels, and spin-offs, adds to the literary world.

The very fact that the franchise has expanded so much makes one wonder whether the author really is so enamoured with her own construction, or whether the influence of popularity has a bigger role. Making a remake of something not entirely successful the first time is a similar case of trying to keep the popularity alive for a series that is difficult to evaluate as a literary work.

The series focuses too much on appealing to its audience with its modern references and speech, and the way it falls prey to character archetypes that earlier New York Times bestsellers have already exploited.

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image source: shadowhunterfans.blogspot.com

Series such as The Hunger Games have arguably warranted their film adaptations. Moreover, even with the shortcomings and plot errors that occurred, a handful of these film adaptations did it right the first time they took on the job.

The fact that there is a remake of an adaptation should already act as a warning sign that begs the question of how much say the writer has in their own creation, as well as how much dignity they carry forward with it. It’s common nowadays to meet those who say they write in order to produce the next “big thing” and become a bestseller, and to a degree the allure of profit is understandable.

Yet it is hard not to go back and wonder about some great novels that may not have received movie adaptations, such as Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and Milton’s Paradise Lost. It also begs the question of why other great works—Shakespeare being the most common—have received so many if the possibility of them being forgotten is practically impossible. Perhaps it is because few have come to recognize the modern incarnation of the classical demon, and the way in which it has precipitated into current society in a quiet comfort.

-Contributed by Margaryta Golovchenko