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

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

Peace in Their Time

“No peace in our time, growls the war-mongering renegade Klingon General Chang (Christopher Plummer) as he fires on the USS Enterprise. But peace in our time is what Star Trek VI is all about.

When the legendary Leonard Nimoy approached director Nicholas Meyer (Star Trek II) with a proposal for a new Star Trek movie, he led with the idea: what if the wall in space came down?

Many pieces of this movie mirror actual peace-making processes of history, and so in reference to the Chernobyl disaster, the movie begins when the Klingon power plant moon of Praxis explodes in front of the USS Excelsior, commanded by Captain Hikaru Sulu. With the space around the Klingon Empire now in disrepair and in need of an evacuation, peace must be made with the Federation if the Klingons are to survive. This peace process is pushed forward by the Klingon Chancellor, as opposed to the Federation.

Then enters The USS Enterprise, and our heroes become entangled in this political drama. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) calls the Star Fleet captains to discuss the treaty. In response, Captain Kirk (William Shatner) betrays his bigoted hatred of the entire Klingon race, a hatred which was cultivated when, in an earlier movie, a Klingon extremist killed Kirk’s son.

So Kirk, Spock, their crew, and the new Vulcan addition Valeris must reluctantly forge the way for this new peace treaty.

Of course Kirk must be the one to escort the Abraham Lincoln-esque Klingon Chancellor Gorkon, because to quote Spock: “only Nixon could go to China.”

But sadly, in the image of those who strive for peace, such as Lincoln, Gandhi, Yitzhak Rabin, and Anwar Sadat, Gorkon doesn’t get to see his dream of peace fulfilled. After one dinner party scene (in which every character just quotes Shakespeare because I guess the writers were hungover that day), the Enterprise is framed for the assassination of Chancellor Gorkon. With Kirk and McCoy arrested for his murder, it seems like peace is slipping out of reach.

What follows is a dark and comical murder investigation aboard the Enterprise as Spock and the crew search for the assassins. Meanwhile, Kirk and Dr. “Bones” McCoy are put on trial, and sent to an alien gulag prison on a planet so cold that the surface will kill you in minutes. There is no escape.

However, after a couple of wonderful fight scenes with aliens—which Kirk wins with a swift kick to the knee (that wasn’t a knee, he is later informed)—and after Kirk takes a moment to reflect on his blind hatred of the Klingons, the party escapes. This is done with the help of a shapeshifter (with the obligatory make-out session with the captain), who guides them out.

But the shapeshifter betrays them, and then morphs into… Captain Kirk. Now folks, say what you will about Will Shatner, but him playing a female shapeshifter playing him is amazing.

He yells, “Surprise!”

He makes kissy faces at himself.

When the original Kirk says “I can’t believe I kissed you,” his shapeshifter counterpart replies, “It must have been your lifelong ambition,” which sent me into such a violent fit of laughter it scared both of my cats.

But eventually they escape, and Spock discovers that the masterminds behind the assassination were in fact his Vulcan disciple Valeris, a Star Fleet general, and Klingon General Chang. Irony abounds as in their determination to sabotage an interspecies peace treaty, these three members of different species were able to conspire together for war.

Valeris is arrested, and the Enterprise rockets off towards the peace summit being held between the Klingons and the Federation. Kirk, who has reconciled with his prejudice, is desperate to stop the assassination of the rest of the leaders who could save the treaty.

Enter General Chang, with a Klingon warbird ship that can fire its weapons even when “cloaked” (invisible, for the uninitiated). It turns out that it was Chang who fired on Chancellor Gorkon! Christopher Plummer’s character is just full of cheese—he laughs maniacally while spinning in his chair and blasting the Enterprise and most of his lines are just disconnected Shakespeare quotes. But his most important line is certainly: “Admit it Captain, it’s better this way.”

Chang genuinely believes it would be better for them all to kill one another than to have peace, because he doesn’t want to stop hating.

That is the true brilliance of this movie, a cheesy space opera based on the end of the Cold War. The message of this movie isn’t lost with time. If it’s not a story about the Cold War, then it can easily become a story about the Middle Eastern conflict of today. This is a story about change, about warring sides finally laying down their arms, and about how everyone is vulnerable to bigotry. That includes both the best and the worst of people. The end message is that bigotry and racism need to be pushed aside to form a better world. Star Trek VI shows that we mustn’t be afraid to forge a better future together, and we shouldn’t be so afraid to lose the flawed world of today.

Of course, the Enterprise beats Chang’s ship (with Sulu’s help), and they stop the assassination. When Kirk shakes hands with Chancellor Gorkon’s daughter, he tells her what her father told him:

“It’s about the future, Madame Chancellor. Some people think the future means the end of history. Well, we haven’t run out of history quite yet. Your father called the future the undiscovered country. People can be very frightened of change.”

These words ring true today as well. So whether it’s here on earth, or out there amongst the stars where no one has gone before, I say raise a glass.

Here’s to the undiscovered country.

-Contributed by Ben Ghan

I Ain’t Afraid of No Ghosts… But Flying Saucers Give Me Chills!

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Illustration by Lorna Antoniazzi

 

Scary stories have been a staple of popular culture since there has been popular culture. To be spooked, thrilled, horrified, and afraid has been at the centre of fiction for a long time.

Scary stories have always been a reflection of things that we fear in the real world. This is why for so long scary stories were about ghosts, monsters, and the supernatural. People were afraid of monsters. Stories about ghosts gave us chills, vampire stories convinced us that we should eat more garlic, Frankenstein’s monster reminded us that science is terrifying.

But now? What are these monsters now that we’ve lost our fear of them? Classic monsters are now often represented as antiheroes or love interests. We see them as the underdog, with the trait that originally made them scary now being used metaphorically to represent real issues. Ghosts often represent isolation—vermin to be sucked up Bill Murray’s ghost catcher. Vampires are the love interests in teen romances, and the thirst for blood often becomes a metaphor for drug addiction. No one has really been afraid of Frankenstein’s monster since the movie Young Frankenstein (which you should see if you haven’t already), and zombies are basically cannon fodder: bodies we can watch explode without feeling any remorse at all. They still make movies about monster attacks or hauntings, but we don’t seem frightened of these anymore.

So what are we afraid of now? Well… Look up. The truth is out there.

Aliens are the new monsters and the scary story of today. Which, when you think about it, makes perfect sense. Five hundred years ago, the majority of people believed in the supernatural, while we now live in a more secular society where the belief in the supernatural is far less prevalent. Phenomena that were once blamed on ghosts are now explained by modern science.

Today, with what we know about the universe, it seems far more likely that aliens exist than ghosts, and belief in aliens is becoming more and more commonplace. But why does that make aliens  the new scary story? Because while monsters have become relatable or overused, aliens remain terrifying in our culture. To explain why, I will look at several different types of alien stories.

A group of invaders discover a new land and go about systematically wiping out the life that was already there in order to claim it as their own.  The aliens easily accomplish this by mobilizing their alien armies and using advanced, seemingly unstoppable weapons. Now think, did I just describe an alien invasion movie, or the colonization of North America? Well, both, actually.

Sure, we get the occasional nice, peaceful humanoid aliens in a story once in a while, like the Vulcans on Star Trek or the Doctor in Doctor Who. But even in these stories, the villain is still almost always a bigger, evil alien trying to conquer and destroy. Occasionally the position is reversed, and the humans are the conquerors coming and invading other planets. This type of story is a good way of showing the possibility that, instead of being the victims, perhaps human beings will be the villains.

Alien stories come from the fear that we’re next. Every civilization in history is eventually torn down by something more powerful and more dangerous. Our history is full of empires slaughtering and conquering throughout the world. Speaking as a species, we have quite a lot of blood on our hands. What happens now that the whole planet is one giant collection of nations? We have to think bigger. This is where aliens come in. Alien invasion stories are scary because they represent the fear that maybe humanity will be the next thing to be conquered. We are afraid that out there in the stars is something bigger, smarter, and more advanced than we are, and that it might be coming our way.

It would be impossible for me to talk about why aliens are scary without mentioning the movie Alien (1979). It’s deadly, it’s ferocious, it’s smart, and it is terrifying, but most importantly, it is inhuman. While all of the world’s old monsters have some connection to human beings—we become them after death or we are transformed into them via some kind of infection—the alien has none. The alien is the ultimate Other. It is a being that cannot be reasoned with, that we don’t understand, and that is definitely trying to kill us. What gives Ridley Scott’s classic monster its ultimate edge, however, is the fear that it might lay its eggs inside you, and that its babies are going to pop out of your chest. Thus taking the fear of infection we have with classic monsters, and giving it a new, horrifying, and (pun intended) alien edge. It is our predator, something that we would, honestly, be silly not to fear. The worst part is, it doesn’t matter if we kill one alien, because there are many more. In space, human beings are not at home, and something else is king.

Speaking of predators, this brings me to my next point. The movie Predator shows a race of advanced aliens hunting human beings for sport. Luckily for humanity, Arnold Schwarzenegger cannot actually be killed. But for the rest of us, the idea of aliens using humans for sport is terrifying. The predator does to us what we do to animals—keeps us as pets, hunts us for sport, and, in short, dehumanizes us. This can also be said to be true of the urban legend of alien abduction: advanced creatures waiting in the woods to snatch people up and experiment on them like animals.

This brings me to my conclusion. All of our scary stories throughout history, all of our monsters, have been about something taking away our humanity.

So we have turned to aliens. All of the things I have listed above fall into the fear that we will no longer be the dominant species, or that something will come along and treat us like animals, removing our humanity. Aliens are our fear of what awaits us in the future and out amongst the stars.

So admit it, we ain’t afraid of no ghosts! But mysterious lights up in the sky, on the other hand…

-contributed by Ben Ghan