A few nights ago I saw Arrival, because I’d heard good things about it. Watching it and then reading discussions about it online did to me what such things usually do: set off a long internal monologue. This time I happened to jot most of this monologue down, meaning I could patch it up, develop and massage it into a blog post.
It’s built off a spontaneous rant, which means what I say might be unreasonable, unfair, inconsistent, partly imaginary and not at all well explained or thought out. You’ve been warned.
Oh, and spoilers, obviously.
Arrival starts with some mysterious spacecraft arriving on Earth. The aliens do nothing, content to have their ships silently hover above some seemingly random spots throughout the world.
Linguist Louise Banks is recruited by the US Army to decipher the strange noises heard from the aliens. She teams up with Ian Donnelly, a physicist, and they climb aboard one of the ships. The aliens communicate by drawing strange pictures in the air using something like airborne squid ink and Louise gets to work on trying to understand what they mean, under tension created by the military personnel acting very military-y and being-in-the-way-y and cause-unnecessary-conflict-y.
During all this Louise has visions of her daughter’s death and her marriage falling apart. We don’t know anything about this and her life shows no sign of a husband or daughter, in the present or in the past.
As translation efforts progress around the world and it becomes clear that the aliens are talking about a ”weapon” of some sort, geopolitical tensions rise. A coalition led by a Chinese general prepares to attack the aliens, which causes Louise to approach them on her own.
It turns out that the aliens’ language being ”non-sequential” is more than a surface feature and mastering it means you start to experience events out of sequence. That is, your mind starts “perceiving time nonlinearly”, an idea the result of treating the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis the way Deepak Chopra treats quantum mechanics. This is why Louise’s been having those visions since she started learning the language — she’s seeing the death of a daughter who’s not yet born.
She uses this new power to communicate with the Chinese general in the future to get him to call off the attack in the present, and all is well. The reason for the aliens’ visit turns out to be making humans learn their language so we can get time-superpowers and help them in the distant future.
The political tension was the result of us mistranslating “language” as “weapon” because it was phrased as ”tool”, echoing a quote from the beginning I really liked:
Language is the foundation of civilization, it is the glue that holds the people together, it is the first weapon drawn in a conflict.
I liked the movie. There were many good things about it. The first half was nothing short of fantastic; the alien script was really cool and I would’ve loved to see more of it, how it worked and how they figured it out. I wouldn’t have objected if this process (with a good payoff) had been the whole movie. The parts where Louise discusses how difficult translation is when you have no idea about who or what you’re talking to and how they think was also great.
But because it has so much more interesting content than your average movie its shortcomings are even more frustrating. After a great start it steps off the edge of the pier with the whole “learning to see through time by learning a new language” thing. It’s a neat idea — aesthetically — but nonsense on a literal level, which was jarring since the first half was so down to Earth.
The ”beings existing outside of time” thing has been done before (like in Star Trek: Deep Space 9) and like there it here falls apart the moment you start thinking about it. A living being is a process, it changes, it thinks and does stuff. Things happening after each other is what we mean by time. No time, no processes, no life. Living beings ”outside of time” couldn’t be anything at all but a static structure, not alive in any way close to what’s ordinarily meant by the word. And these aliens do stuff and can be communicated with. It isn’t just false or impossible but nonsensical.
They could exist in a different, orthogonal time dimension I suppose, being able to move around in our time but not their own. If that is what they had in mind (sadly I think it’s just poorly thought out) it raises a lot of interesting questions and should be worked out in more detail, not just dunked in handwavium and thrown in.
“But you can’t just explain every little thing!”
No, but this isn’t a “little” thing! You do need to make sure your main storytelling idea stands up to at least some scrutiny. And even when you don’t explain something to the audience you should know for yourself so everything you do say makes sense. Otherwise you might turn into Lost. And I think the movie made the same mistake Lost did and subverted it’s own implied logic. Twists and turns are good, but a story can’t suddenly defy gravity and lift off the rails. It needs to fulfill your expectations, but in a way you didn’t expect.
Power is not depth
Reading some online discussion lit some old fires. Someone opined Louise’s personal story was the ”meat” of the movie and if it’d been just about contact with aliens and interpreting their language it would’ve been terrible. What the what?! Can we have a movie that isn’t about personal drama, please? You people get almost every movie, including all the highly prestigious ones. Can we have this one, please? Can we have a movie about how humanity meets aliens and not have it be about the personal lives of the particular people who meet them?
“Well, interpersonal drama is the foundation for all stories. Plots and events are meaningless by themselves, it’s all about the characters and how they react.”
No! I don’t want to use such a douchey expression but since you’re an imaginary straw-person you won’t mind: check your goddamn privilege. You think personal drama is an essential part of stories (and therefore that stories without it are deficient) because it is to you, it is to most people, and the majority of stories try to appeal to those sensibilities — Serious Literature especially. You’re used to getting your way all the time; personal drama has to be frickin’ everywhere.
This made me think back on someone commenting that The Martian felt flat and the astronaut Mark Watney should’ve had some family back home to “make it emotional”. No, no, a thousand times no! That part of The Martian felt so freeing: no unnecessary paint-by-numbers emoting for once. No more motivation is needed than the fundamental human drive to survive (this goes for Gravity too, yet another movie with an obligatory backstory of personal loss).
I get the feeling sci-fi stories, no matter how grounded, have to add some emotional pain to be taken seriously. Portraying negative emotions makes art serious and deep, because positivity is childish and superficial.
I dislike this implied artistic hierarchy because I don’t think that’s true at all. Instead I suspect we find negative feelings ”deeper” precisely because they are not — they push some very obvious and powerful buttons. It’s easier to tell ”deep” (emotionally resonant) stories about sad and terrible things because its easier to evoke strong negative feelings than strong positive ones. What makes you miserable is more obvious, more powerful and more universal, while what makes you happy is elusive and personal.
Let’s make something clear: strong emotions work. They certainly do on me. I have two little daughters and the mere suggestion of children getting hurt now makes me physically ill in a way it never did before. With having children, the protective shield of mental distance that kept me from being moved by such things have simply disappeared and I’ve learned first hand that parental love is the most powerful force in the [mental] universe. But it’s because of that reliable resonance those strings are so easy to pluck. It’s become a shortcut for adding “depth” to a story, but emotions aren’t deep just because they’re strong. Physical pain is also strong but similarly straightforward and uninteresting. Powerful but uncomplicated feelings are cheap tools, overused because they’re easy and reliable, the storytelling equivalent of sugar and butter. Use them to bring out flavors, sure, but they can’t be the main ingredient and drowning food in them to make it taste better is rightly considered vulgar.
Discovering the unknown and coming face to face with an alien intelligence is emotionally subtle, like a flute melody above slow-moving string harmonies. Arrival’s first half made us feel awe in the face of something vast and alien. It showed us the thrill of discovery, of finding out there is intention behind something inexplicable. The Martian had not only the power of human ingenuity to accomplish great things, but also that glimmer of hope that comes with realizing that something seemingly hopeless just might not be. Those are less overused feelings.
The blunt force of a dying child story in Arrival was like adding a thumping bass drum over the flute or pouring a pound of sugar and cream onto a dessert with rare exotic fruits. Power and subtlety are hard to mix right.
Some commenter said Louise Banks was underdeveloped and wanted to learn more about her. I don’t. She’s an audience insert (so is Mark Watney in The Martian) and we should not look at her as someone we get to know but someone we get to be. Louise is a subject, a point of view, an empty place for us to stand as we see what she sees.
This kind of “placeholder” character if often pooh-poohed as superficial but shouldn’t be. I’m perfectly fine identifying with an empty vessel, a template, a dummy representing humankind or a particular aspect of it. There are many ways to craft fiction, and realistic multidimensional characters is not an essential feature. Nor has it always been fashionable the way it is now.
I had that thought before when reading a complaint about Tintin being one-dimensional. He is. He has almost no character traits and isn’t a real person but a mere manifestation of ”adventure”, like James Bond is of ”suave awesomeness”. But as I’ve said this kind of character is unfashionable; they’re making Bond more psychologically complex and realistic in the recent movies and I don’t like it. It’s not what he’s about. He doesn’t have a past, a family or a life outside of work. He’s larger than life, an archetype. Trying to turn him into a real person takes away from what makes him what he is.
Science fiction stories often have this kind of flat, ”functionalist” characters (which makes people look down on it as a genre) because it’s not about them — it’s about the things they experience and discover. This is not a flaw any more than the lack of exciting plot in most literary novels or the lack of a bass drop in most (possibly all) of Mozart’s piano sonatas is. It’s by design and it’s fine. Not everything is for every taste, and this is a matter of taste: something essential for you might be an unwelcome distraction for someone else, and vice versa.
Wide and narrow stories
I hear Louise’s personal story is better centered (and not pasted on) in the original novella. Sure, it might be, but it still feels like a bad fit to me. Maybe I just don’t think that it’s a good idea to combine the personal and the ”cosmic” scales in a single story. It requires us to shift frames which makes the story feel disjointed. Grand scale narratives engage other parts of the mind than intimate, personal ones and tying them together is like mixing ketchup and lettuce.
This quote by Donnelly near the end shows how silly it can get:
You know, I’ve had my head tilted up to the stars for as long as I can remember. You know what surprised me the most? It wasn’t meeting them. It was meeting you.
Oh puh-lease… You discovered we’re not alone in the universe, personally met the aliens, helped save humanity and learned it’s possible to travel through time — but getting to know your future wife is a bigger deal?
Well, yes. On a personal level it certainly can be. But the other things are vastly more important from a no-one-in-particular perspective, and that’s why it’s hard to successfully mix stories about humanity, society and the universe with stories about the lives of particular people. These two perspectives (call them ”wide” and ”narrow”) don’t assign meaning to things in the same way and that means it’ll create internal dissonance in the meaning-manufacturing process. And that’s what stories are about, really.
The classic quote ”One death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic” (wrongly attributed to Stalin) illustrates it well: we can’t appreciate or even fathom a million deaths through the narrow-focus lens we use to deal with just one, and we also can’t appreciate a single death through the mental schemas we use to consider the meaning and consequences of a million. I’ve argued before that a strong narrative is (artificially) coherent and cohesive, all its parts humming in harmony. Mixing incompatible frames ruins that feeling (it’s different if such dissonance is the actual point, but that’s not the case in Arrival).
A common way to deal with this is to have events be meaningful both ways, leading to oh-so-overdone contrivances like ”Oh dear, [lost family member] is behind everything! The stakes are high and it’s personal!”. *Groan*
The (wonderful) bookstore-sitcom Black Books mocks this kind of thing:
Female customer: Hi, we’re looking for…
[Bernard hands her a copy of Tempapocalypse]
Bernard: Here’s one for you.
Female customer: How do you know what we both want?
Male customer: We don’t like the same stuff.
Bernard: You’re going on holiday. You want trash. But different kinds of trash. You, you want social themes, believable characters. You, you want suspense, thriller. This does you both. It’s this temp. She’s 29 and she can’t get a boyfriend. Oh my god.
Female customer: Sounds great.
Male customer: No way.
Bernard: And she’s got 12 hours to stop a nuclear war with China.
Male customer: Well, one copy each!
In most cases (I can’t think of any counterexamples right now) “mixing” requires that either the narrow (local, personal, concrete) or wide (universal, impersonal, abstract) perspective takes precedence and the other plays a supporting role. Unless you’re really good that tends to mean either “flat characters” or “nothing happens”.
“Thought provoking” is a low bar
By the end the movie reveals its central theme: predestination and making decisions you know will have tragic consequences. Sure, predestination becomes an issue when you’re suddenly able to see the future, and it’s been a staple of popular sci-fi for a long time (most notably in the Terminator series). Ok, what do you have to say about it? Nothing in particular? Just “bringing it up”?
“Well it makes you think, doesn’t it?”
“Makes me think”? Bitch please, everything I see and hear makes me think. Saying something “makes me think” is like saying food ”takes up space in my stomach”. Hey storyteller! How about doing some thinking yourself and showing it to me? I don’t want you to “make me think”, I want you to show me thoughts I couldn’t have thought on my own.
”You’re supposed to figure things out for yourself! Just like with that thing about aliens existing outside of time you complained about before, don’t expect to be spoon-fed!”
I would do that if I had a good reason to think there was anything there to figure out. I’m more than willing to solve a clever riddle or find subtle themes or references but I’m not willing to do a creator’s job for them and patch up or develop their story. I’ve been disappointed too many times to automatically trust that there’s hidden thought behind everything that doesn’t seem to make sense.
I want what many would decry as exposition or spoon-feeding because I want someone to prove they’ve thought something through more than I have. I want to be able to explore a work of art without bumping into the bottom of the pool because the creator hadn’t worked stuff out ahead of me.
I guess that’s why I so dislike art whose purpose is to just “raise an issue” or illustrate a theme in a single way. Give me more, you lazy tease. Don’t just do step 1 and act all satisfied. Where is step 2-100? An interesting question, dilemma, idea or motive is a starting point, nothing more. Anything complex enough to be interesting has many parts and steps and just giving people the first piece or two and expecting them to reconstruct the whole edifice means you’re either expecting to much of your audience or what you’re trying to say is simplistic. I mean, if it’s possible to communicate something by being vague and unclear, that something is too simple to be worth engaging with (unless you have a truly novel idea, but those are rare). And thinking you’ve accomplished something when just asking a question or making an unoriginal point is laaaame. Asking questions is easy, answering them is hard.
Now at the end I get the same feeling I did when discussing (at length) why I didn’t like Infinite Jest that much: a sneaking suspicion that my complaints and elaborate theories about storytelling mechanics etc. are just my brain making epicycles trying to rationalize reactions it doesn’t really understand. It wouldn’t be the first time.
Maybe I’d forgive or even appreciate the things I disliked if only their implementation, my background knowledge or my expectations had been slightly different. I possibly wouldn’t have been all that annoyed by the ”nonlinear time” conceit if I’d encountered it in an ”artistic” mindset rather than the ”realistic” one the first half of the movie put me in. Approaching a work of art is like reentering the atmosphere, you have to come at it at just the right angle.
• • •
This last bit sets up a causal loop, and I’m no fan of those. The idea doesn’t make sense; loops where the future is predetermined and we have knowledge of our own future actions is in direct conflict with the kind of free will humans undeniably have (often confused with the kind of free will we don’t have — determinism isn’t the same thing as predestination). It was done well for once in Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, which I appreciated.
Donnelly disagrees and says science is the foundation of civilization. Nah. No matter how much of a science-fetishist I may be, Louise is right about this one.
But I’m easy to please as I’m a sucker for these things. I made up my own scripts as a kid and have always been fascinated by artful ways of of representing information. Cuneiform. Hieroglyphs. Musical notation. Streetmaps. Networks. Calendars. Yeeeaaaaahh gimme gimme.
I’d like more movies about how people solve interesting problems without personal drama — like classic detective shows but without grisly murders and no restrictive crime framing. Think All the President’s Men or Spotlight but without needing the animating force of a juicy scandal.
I suspect most people don’t find this idea nonsensical because they don’t think of the mind as a part of the physcial world and therefore a process in time like everything else. I suppose it does make way more sense that consciousness could exist “outside of time” if you think of it as separate from the world and without any moving parts that can change. But that’s incoherent, and I’ll be talking a lot more about it in my upcoming posts.
I also remember someone saying Mark Watney was too calm and not upset enough. Well, thank god! I’m so tired of excessive emoting. It puts me off and doesn’t make me empathize for the same reason screaming doesn’t make me listen. Someone else said the journalists in Spotlight didn’t emote enough either. To me that was a good thing too. It was nice to see serious people dedicated to their task with their own feelings secondary — instead of making it all about them and their reactions.
The famous quote (from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina): “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” expresses this idea succintly: happiness is simple, misery is complex. Apparently people think this, since the quote is considered wise. I don’t and it bothers me when the complexities of happiness are glossed over or even denied.
This is why politics faces a much harder challenge today than it did a century ago. The conditions that make people miserable are easy to understand (starvation, toil, disease, violence, oppression) and while eliminating them might be hard the goal is relatively clear. The conditions that bring people from ”not miserable” to ”truly happy” are way more slippery and divergent.
Crime fiction is also evolving in this direction. Modern detectives are developed characters with personal drama-type b-plots instead of just filling a function in the story the way old-style crime fighters like Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot or Sherlock Holmes did.
See: too much of contemporary art.