In the same way that the heptapod language permits Louise to grasp the warp and weft of her world, the form of the heptapods taps into the once fringe and now venerable sci-fi conceit of alien visitors at the origins of human civilization: they have always already been there.
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SPOILER ALERT: This review is intended for people who have already seen the film or are not concerned with plot twists.
Denis Villeneuve’s 2013 puzzler Enemy begins with an epigraph from the novel by José Saramago on which it is loosely based: “Chaos is order yet undeciphered.” And while Enemy concludes without ever fulfilling the promise of this quote – Villeneuve has refused to explain the film’s ending in interviews although he insists that there is a meaning to decipher – for Arrival (2016), making order out of chaos is the guiding principle. From the swirling black mists that coalesce into complex ink-blot sentences to the gradual cohesion of random flashes of memory into the story of a life, Arrival posits nothing short of a metaphysics of order out of chaos. Or, to put it more in the terms used by the alien heptapods, it is a metaphysics of seeing past or around apparent chaos into the order that had always already been there. Like most of Villeneuve’s films, this one is deceptive; it’s easy to mistake the familiar temporal paradox that saves the world for the movie’s raison d’être when we’re just dealing with a particularly convoluted MacGuffin. The real twist is the way the alien language pulls the rug out from under reality without thereby disturbing in the slightest the complex emotions balanced atop and supported by that reality. But then, as a filmmaker Villeneuve has always inhabited an uneasy place between the gorgeously slick stylistic flourishes that were the hallmark of the late ’90s New Quebec Cinema from which he emerged and an emotional depth somewhere on the far side of melodrama, the life blood of the Québécois popular cinema with which he would have grown up in a small hometown near Montreal.
Arrival has slickness in spades, enough finally to convince a heretofore dubious clutch of American critics that it was safe to place the sequel to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner in the hands of a French-Canadian art-film director with a penchant for slowly paced movies full of enigmatic mysteries. But then, those of us old enough to remember the original release of Blade Runner may also remember the snarky comments back then about its beautiful emptiness and the knowing references to Scott’s background in television and commercial – the accusation of slickness that has long since receded beneath the mantle of “classic.” Dissatisfaction with Arrival has tended to focus on the blockbuster near-apocalypse action thriller that has been inserted into Ted Chiang’s thoughtful 1998 novella about language, time, and the nature of reality. In terms of the film’s structure, what is noteworthy is that the narrowly-averted-cataclysm plot starts to build only about midway through the film, around the same time that Villeneuve also introduces the flashes of memory that increasingly haunt and disrupt star linguist Louise Banks’s (Amy Adams) waking life. In other words, we start with a dramatically compelling and neatly linear first hour that introduces the arrival of twelve elongated elliptical spacecraft at select sites around the world, brings Louise and quantum physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to the army outpost in a Montana valley where one of the ships floats, takes them into the utterly alien space of communications within the craft, and sees them crack the strange codes of the language and haltingly begin communicating with the heptapods. The second half splits into two plot threads: the grand scale of a crisis between humans and aliens precipitated by the Chinese decision to declare war; and the intimately personal scale of Louise’s increasingly intense memories of her daughter, who, as we see in a virtuoso opening montage sequence, burns brightly only to die young of cancer.
The juxtaposition is certainly jarring, and I think intentionally so, for Villeneuve seeds it in the ways that Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker, above) appears on the scene earlier in the film always as an intrusive interruption. First, he barges into Louise’s office on a university campus emptied by the alien scare.1 Then his helicopter arrives loud and enormous on the screen to disrupt the middle of the night at her home. And once on the base, he is constantly challenging and questioning her. The only way he is made sympathetic in the film is through Whitaker’s underplaying, especially by contrast to the somewhere between Machiavellian and simply villainous CIA Agent Halpern (Michael Stuhlbarg), who at one point orders Louise shot as a traitor. One way of posing the formal question of the second half of the film is how to conjoin intimate and emotional drama with interstellar action. Another way is to think of it in religious terms. Whether we ask in terms of a Buddhist non-attachment or a Christian rejection of the things of this world, the answer in both cases is that the big reveal of General Shang’s (Tzi Ma) change of heart is nowhere near as compelling as the big reveal about Louise, Ian, and their daughter (below). As it does for Louise, so for the viewer, one overrides the other.
Villeneuve’s films tend to seek either a clash or a balance of extremes, depending on whom you are listening to and how you react to them. We often find beauty and horror in disturbingly close proximity, especially in the look and feel of the four natural elements: the blindingly white salt earth of the Utah desert where the central action of Un 32 Août sur Terre (1998) takes place; the water that permeates Maelström (2000) from the opening abortion to the final scattering of ashes on the St. Lawrence River; the fire that embodies the searing horror of violence in Incendies (2010) and the soothing water of the swimming pool that provides its tragic anagnoresis; the natural splendor surrounding Louise Banks’s lakeside house in Arrival and the green Montana valley that frames the alien spacecraft, floating effortlessly in the air just above the ground.2 Reviewers of Villeneuve’s films consistently single out their deliberate pace, slowly building intensity, elegiac and elegant imagery, and cool control. But chaotic, excessive, or simply inexplicable elements also intrude at every turn. The eviscerated fish of a narrator in a blood-spattered abattoir from hell that punctuates the main narrative of Maelström and the gleefully inappropriate “Good Morning Starshine” playing over the early abortion scene and reprised in the film’s “happy” finale; the banal landscapes and deadened life of Montreal in contrast with the hot Middle-Eastern sun of Nawal’s home country in Incendies; the excruciatingly dragged-out torture scenes in the midst of the slow-burn police-procedural in Prisoners (2013); the almost impossibly weird and blindingly quick final shot of Enemy. Reviewing Arrival for the New York Times, Manohla Dargis complained of Villeneuve’s films that “he punctures the stories with bluntly violent shocks – a stunned survivor seated before a burning truck in ‘Incendies,’ corpses sealed inside a drug-house wall in ‘Sicario’ – that distill terror into a grabber moment. These visuals can be real showstoppers (the narratives briefly shift into idle); they’re at once off-putting and unsettlingly seductive, and even if you want to look away, it can be hard to. Some of his limitations as a filmmaker are best expressed in the perfect crackling of those flames and the pictorial balance of that shot of walled-up torture victims.” The relative restraint of Arrival suggests to me that Villeneuve was aiming for a synthesis of these tensions in the broader world. The chaos of Arrival comes from outside: the world out of joint following the aliens’ initial appearance and, especially, the disruptive presence of the military, from the helicopter that takes over the night when it comes to fetch Louise to the various plot elements that for many reviewers marred the second half of the film, injecting sci-fi action tropes into a cerebral work of hard science fiction. In another movie, Louise would have resolved the impending global crisis and world-ending apocalypse by the superpowers granted her via her rapport with the aliens; here, it is a few words whispered in her ear that put salvation in motion. All that has been required is that she learn the alien language she needs to know in order to understand those words and to remember them soon enough to act on them.
The two most frequently reproduced publicity stills of the film (above) – the extreme long shot of the pod hovering over a green valley and the close-up of Louise in profile with the same pod hovering in the distance behind her – stress the unity of these alien spacecraft with the natural world. Chiang’s novella refers to the contact points between heptapods and humans as “screens”; the name gives a strong sense of their more human scale – these screens are small enough to be covered by an army tent. Villeneuve and his team blow up the scale, but they retain the metaphorical potency of the original term and expand it to account for our changed relationship to screens in the nearly two decades since Chiang’s novella was published. Screens literally mediate much of the experiences and communications within the film. In the first scene, Louise arrives to a nearly empty lecture hall, the few students in attendance all staring transfixed at their screens. Villeneuve holds the shot long enough for us (and Louise) to wonder if this is simply the status quo of a classroom circa 2016 until finally a student asks her to switch the smartboard behind her on to a news channel. After this opener, Louise is seldom shown separated from a TV or computer screen as she watches the news of the aliens in her home and in her office; even the early views of the lake are framed through picture windows to emphasize her reflection. Once at the army camp in Montana, nearly all of the work is done on screens and with projections; the first breakthrough is made when Louise writes on a whiteboard rather than using verbal communication with the heptapods. And, of course, the heptapod’s semasiographic language is rendered visually as if coalescing on a screen for us, just as the barrier between them is rendered in terms of its resemblance to and on the scale of a cinema screen. Even the early montage of Louise’s daughter Hannah’s life is rendered as if mediated through audiovisual technology, especially the color dynamics, variable framing, and jerky movements of home video.
In contrast, Louise’s entry into the heptapod language is visually rendered for us in terms of unmediated images, just as the heptapod spacecraft hovers majestically in nature rather than intruding and threatening the landscape as per the massive looming alien spacecraft iconography of Independence Day (1996) or District 9 (2009). Her first communications breakthrough comes when she removes her protective headgear and permits face-to-face contact (albeit still separated by the screen). When her memories manifest in increasingly frequent blasts of imagery, they are immediate in impact and generally rendered without screens (so, we see young Hannah drawing and writing, not typing or social-networking).The two brief scenes that sketch out Ian’s and Louise’s developing relationship are some of the very few that take place alone and in the open air: once, sitting on the back of a pickup truck with the pod floating in the near background (an impossible shot according to the logic of the “action” plot – for where is the army and its controlling influence – but necessary in terms of the visual logic of the film), and later, at the very end, intercut with Louise at her house dancing with a glass of wine, we get Ian’s romantic declaration, “You know what surprised me the most. It wasn’t meeting them. It was meeting you.” While the primary function is a closing piece of poetically romantic dialogue, Ian’s declaration and the tight close-up framing of the two of them against the Montana sky not only asserts the primacy of the intimate, personal plot over the world-historical one, but in this distinction just as much groups Louise with the heptapods: by this point in the film, they are united in their ability to surprise and to take us outside of the world we know.
In the same way that the heptapod language permits Louise to grasp the warp and weft of her world, the form of the heptapods taps into the once fringe and now venerable sci-fi conceit of alien visitors at the origins of human civilization: they have always already been there. And while I have read much admiration for the conception of the aliens and a signal shift away from the terrifying H. R. Giger insectoid model that has dominated the nearly 40 years since Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), I have so far found just a few scattered references to the likeliest source for the new alien iconography, in H. P. Lovecraft’s horror cosmography, and the curious Lovecraft revival currently underway in pop culture.3 The barrel-shaped body with multiply-tentacled limbs echoes Lovecraft’s descriptions of his Great Old Ones. But what most resonates with the Cthulhu mythos is the movie’s understated insistence on the fundamental unknowability of the heptapods. Writing about the “Weird Fiction” of which Lovecraft was one of the primary practitioners in the first half of the twentieth century, “New Weird” writer and critic China Miéville defines the genre and its monsters as “categorically other […] neither knowable nor recalled. The Weird is the assertion of that we did not know, never knew, could not know, that has always been and will always be unknowable.”4 The “tentacle” form characteristic of Lovecraft’s alien gods, Miéville argues, had no origins in popular folklore or myth the way prior monsters such as vampires, werewolves, or zombies did. The monsters of this “abcanny,” contrary to the repressed forces manifested by the more familiar uncanny, “are teratological expressions of that unrepresentable and unknowable, the evasive of meaning.”5 They figure within our world that which has no place in it and threatens its epistemological and ontological foundations.
As “The Punk Writer” notes, the most striking difference between Lovecraft’s cosmos and Arrival is the relative absence of horror in the latter. What there is of apocalypse in Arrival comes from the mundane and all too familiar tropes of global militarism and suspicion rather than the cosmic dread at the heart of Lovecraft’s fictions. Nevertheless, many reviewers noted the subtle atmosphere of dread that does suffuse the film despite the academic pleasures of Ian’s and Louise’s hard work and discovery that occupy most of its middle section. And Villeneuve does conjure specific moments of the “bad numinous,” or sense of otherworldly and incomprehensible power, similar in effect to the ways Weird fiction introduces the sublime into everyday life.6 This especially occurs during the first contact by Ian and Louise, when we follow them walking slowly, and passing without warning through the upside-down space of zero gravity that leads in a tunnel up through the underside of the spaceship and into its bowels. And this sense of a bad numinous continues in the main chamber, with its opaque screen and organic floor and walls. The first thing Louise does when she is back in the army camp is to vomit. Punk Writer reminds us how Louise’s gradual assimilation into the heptapod’s language echoes the ways Lovecraft’s hapless characters gradually lose their minds to alien language and alien world-view of the Great Old Ones. The movie’s late reveal also matches more closely the pulp genre structure familiar from Lovecraft’s horror than the more deliberate hard sci-fi approach of Ted Chiang’s novella, where the temporality is incorporated into the narration from very near the beginning through the elegant deployment of the future tense. The idea that the Great Old Ones are outside of time, or see temporality differently than we perceive it, has been further developed by contemporary writers such as Alan Moore, especially in his own work within the Lovecraftian cosmos. Indeed, Moore’s four-issue comic Neonomicon (2010-11) executes the same temporal reversal that Arrival does in its conclusion, revealing what we had thought to have been in the past actually to be impending in the future.
Chiang’s “The Story of Your Life” renders the arrival of the aliens in as low-key a fashion as it does the temporal revelations. Instead of twelve 1,500-foot-long pods planted across the world, there are 112 “looking-glasses,” nine of them in the U.S., about ten feet high and small enough to be covered up. The process of Louise’s internalization of the language is as emotionally moving in the novella as in the film, but it is purely individual in scope; there is no conversation with the Chinese general and no conflict with the military. One day, the heptapods simply leave, and no one ever discovers why they had come. For Chiang, there is nothing uncanny or abcanny about them; they are as matter of fact as the two parents in the story who lose their daughter and discover an alternate way to grasp the laws of nature and the universe. Villeneuve and the screenwriter Eric Heisserer have increased the scale of everything in the film; in particular, they have brought back the metaphysical to the equation. For, while Chiang uses a Borgesian parable to describe the paradox of fate versus free will, he leaves out the nausea and horror that always accompany the awe and wonder of these parables of bad infinities in Borges’s writing as in Lovecraft’s. Heisserer and Villeneuve omit those Borgesian moments because their metaphysics are strikingly theological.
But they retain Louise’s matter-of-fact understanding of the consequences of knowing the future and the ease with which she reconciles that understanding with the necessity of acting in knowledge of what is to come. “Similarly, knowledge of the future was incompatible with free will,” Chiang’s Louise tells the reader. “What made it possible for me to exercise freedom of choice also made it impossible for me to know the future. Conversely, now that I know the future, I would never act contrary to that future, including telling others what I know: those who know the future don’t talk about it. Those who’ve read the Book of Ages never admit to it.”7 In the film, Louise’s knowledge comes to us more on the order of a wonder. This is partly because of its placement at the climax of the film, and because it is wrought into the moment where she saves the world from destruction. But Villeneuve still reserves the final wonder just for us, as we realize the order of Louise’s life and reevaluate the status of the images we had been seeing of her daughter. It’s a properly cinematic wonder, because we discover, basically, that we have been watching the film out of sequence: what we thought were flashbacks were in fact flash-forwards. Nor had we noticed that these flash-forwards began at the time Louise first begins to think in Heptapod B (as the novella calls it), and that what we had taken for Louise’s fatigue was in fact the stress of visions of the future that she could not understand.
So, one key intertext for Arrival is the Lovecraftian horror cosmos (which could well be, or not be, intentional; Villeneuve is on record as having been an avid reader of science fiction, and formed by French comics artists such as Moebius, Enki Bilal, and Jean-Claude Mézières, so the connection is at the least plausible). But another intertext is most certainly the original masterpiece of cinematic time-travel, La Jetée (1962), Chris Marker’s half-hour film composed almost entirely of still photographs. Depicting the fate of a prisoner of war confined beneath Paris after the end of World War III, La Jetée finds enemy doctors sending the protagonist back in time through his mind. Like Louise Banks, he finds the experience both exhilarating (he falls in love and experiences a heretofore unexperienced world before nuclear holocaust – “our” world, in other words) and psychically traumatic. Eventually, he is sent forward in time to obtain a device from the future that will restore the world: “If they were able to conceive or to dream another time, perhaps they would be able to live in it.” In addition to being an homage to the French Resistance to Nazi Occupation (and the inspiration for Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys), La Jetée is also very much about the cinema as a machine for traveling through time and for escaping the constraints of time – hence its most magical moment is when the still photographs suddenly, briefly, move, as if a person we thought to be dead has returned to life. This moment is quite similar to the bittersweet discovery the audience in Arrival makes about Louise’s daughter. We begin the film watching her die and end the film realizing that she has not yet even begun to live, and that we have been watching the future. Like Heptapod B, cinema is a language for which time is non-linear, and the more we immerse ourselves in its language, the more unstuck in time we become (to quote from another famous time-travel narrative).
Granted, Villeneuve and Heisserer overdetermine this moment by revising Chiang’s version of Hannah’s death (as a young professional in her twenties, in a mountaineering accident) by making her younger and striking her down with incurable cancer. But they also explore, like Marker, the simultaneous gift and curse of a cinematic memory that allows us endlessly to replay what we know to be inevitable. La Jetée always, inevitably, ends in the same impossible moment of death where it began. It is never made clear in Arrival if Louise, like Marker’s soldier, learns to control or to guide her memory, or if it will continue to function in bursts of Proustian involuntary memory, deeply emotionally freighted but not able to be produced or reproduced at will. Again, as recounted in the novella, she is in complete control of the process – she narrates the moments for us, choosing how she orders them. In the film, by contrast, the moments wash over her and us as powerful images; we are as much in the dark as she is until the very end, although we believe until near the end that this is not the case for her, that she is simply remembering the tragedy of Hannah’s life. To borrow language from Marker’s narrator, we see her constructing “the very strong mental image” that might enable one to survive the trauma of moving through time in a non-linear way.
Writing about Arrival in the New York Review of Books, James Gleick neatly unpacks Chiang’s novella in the context of “a strain of physicist that likes to think of the world as settled, inevitable, its path fully determined by the grinding of the gears of natural law. … If they can’t tell you whether the sun will be obscured by a rainstorm, a strict Newtonian would say that’s only because they don’t yet have enough data or enough computing power. And if they can’t tell you whether you’ll be alive to see the eclipse, well, maybe they haven’t discovered all the laws yet.” Other strands of physics such as quantum mechanics, he reminds us, tend toward the opposite conclusion, toward chaos. But for the “determinist, free will … is only an illusion.” This conclusion leads Gleick into the pleasurable paradoxes of science-fictional time travel – in particular, the problem of free will in the knowledge of the necessary future. For determinist physicists, free will is not an issue; for philosophers and novelists, it most certainly is. Indeed, in La Jetée and other time-travel fictions, free will often becomes a matter of life and death. Referring to Louise’s description of her knowledge of the trajectory of her life (and, presumably, the world and the cosmos) in “The Story of Your Life,” Gleick concludes, “So, as she comes to understand her gift, she feels like a celebrant performing a ritual recitation. Or an actor reading her lines, following a script in every conversation. The rest of us don’t know we’re following the script.” A rationalist, Gleick is confounded by this possibility, the idea of performing a ritual the outcome of which is fixed and known in advance. A rationalist, he doesn’t address the fact that many millions of believers in a number of different religions follow such fixed rituals, with great faith and conviction, all the time.
Indeed, in a well-known simile, the 5th-century Church father and philosopher Saint Augustine describes the relationship between fate and free will in late antique Christianity in terms very reminiscent of Gleick’s image of a “recitation”:
I am about to repeat a Psalm that I know. Before I begin, my expectation is extended over the whole; but when I have begun, how much soever of it I shall separate off into the past, is extended along my memory; thus the life of this action of mine is divided between my memory as to what I have repeated, and expectation as to what I am about to repeat; but “consideration” is present with me, that through it what was future, may be conveyed over, so as to become past. Which the more it is done again and again, so much the more the expectation being shortened, is the memory enlarged: till the whole expectation be at length exhausted, when that whole action being ended, shall have passed into memory. And this which takes place in the whole Psalm, the same takes place in each several portion of it, and each several syllable.8
Augustine is also trying to account for the existence of free will in the knowledge of God’s existence outside of time and with full knowledge of the trajectory of the cosmos from creation to the apocalypse. Like Louise Banks, Augustine tries to imagine the ontology that would result from sharing God’s knowledge, and sharing His language, the ability to speak words that are things rather than abstract signs. However rational the image of reciting a psalm, the acceptance of that paradox always requires a leap of faith, the same leap that makes a ritual something more than simply a repeated action. This difference is also the difference between Louise and Ian. When she tells him what she knows about their daughter, he cannot bear it, and leaves. In the world of Arrival, the physicist cannot countenance the paradox; the humanist embraces it.
In an interview, Bryan Bishop asked Villeneuve about possible interpretations of Arrival as a pro-life movie, since, as we have just seen, Louise’s acceptance of the story of her daughter’s future fits so well within the theological framework as Augustine and many Christians thereafter have understood it, a framework that has since become an axiom of the anti-abortion movement: whatever happens must have been necessary; the task is to embrace it and to understand the meanings of its necessity. Villeneuve responded, “I was honestly afraid that because of the nature of the story, it could be seen as a pro-life movie, which it is not for me. … The idea that the movie would be seen as pro-life would be sad for me, because I respect life, but I believe a woman must have her freedom. That’s what I would say.” In an interview about Prisoners, Villeneuve discussed his Catholicism (no surprise there – the vast majority of French Canadians are Roman Catholics) and the religious motifs he had added to that film’s screenplay. It’s a repeated question for Villeneuve; as I wrote about Incendies (below) five years ago in BLFJ, that film’s narrative structure “mirrors the anti-abortion argument that no life, no matter how awful the circumstances, should ever be taken because we cannot predict what it will come to in the end.” And I cited several important changes Villeneuve had made to the play from which the film was adapted that strengthened this reading. But I also argued that, for a variety of reasons, this remained for me a reductive reading of the film, although certainly an available one, just as it is available to viewers of Arrival but does not for me exhaust the film’s meanings, or disqualify them.
The gender politics in Villeneuve’s films are certainly unorthodox, but they are also difficult to reduce to a single argument. Much of the screen space of Villeneuve’s films is dedicated to studying the expressive faces of his female characters and the actors playing them. All but two of his feature films (Enemy and Prisoners, both of which feature Jake Gyllenhall, and reduce the female roles to stereotypes and near-ciphers) feature female protagonists, and unusual ones, with vexed relationships to pregnancy and children: the perfume model in Un 32 Août who responds to a serious car accident by trying to persuade her best friend to impregnate her; the shallow entrepreneur who begins Maelström with an abortion, kills a man by hit and run while drunk and high, and spends the rest of the movie tracking his identity and bonding with his son; the traumatized survivor of the massacre of female engineering students in Polytechnique (2009) who concludes the film’s epilogue writing a letter to the murderer’s father about her fear for her newborn baby; the Christian martyr Nawal, mother and grandmother to her two Québécois children; the troubled outsider agent in Sicario, disconnected from the “normal” world of families in a film that concludes on the image of the widow of a corrupt Mexican police officer taking their son to play soccer; and Amy Adams’s world-class linguist with her doomed daughter and her fateful decision. Even the two Gyllenhall films revolve around children: Prisoners asks what a parent would do or should do to recover an abducted child; Enemy bases its core pattern of imagery on the pregnant body of the double’s wife and its resemblance to the drooping abdomen of a spider god, incorporating a scene with Adam’s mother (Isabella Rossellini) the main function of which is to entertain the suspicion that she might have borne identical twin sons and gotten rid of one of them. All of these women are at least partly defined in relationship to their children or to feelings of maternity, although not in straightforward or unconflicted ways. They are simultaneously traditional and non-traditional.
In Moore’s Neonomicon, which also features a vexed female protagonist, FBI agent Brears discovers in the fourth and final issue that she is pregnant with Cthulhu from the repeated rape she was subjected to by a Deep One, or Gargouille de la mer (“sea gargoyle”), as she calls it, in an underwater prison.9 As she becomes more and more aware of the god growing within her, the reaction is as far from the Alien scenario, with its brutal mockery of a premature birth gone wrong and its rendering of humans as unknowing hosts to a deadly parasite, as one could imagine. First, Brears realizes that rather than recording ancient occurrences in a distant past, Lovecraft’s early twentieth-century fictions had in fact been recounting the future to which she was soon to give birth. Second, she finds herself more and more enthralled by the Deep Ones’ language of Aklo that allows her insight into their and the Great Old Ones’ “different view of time. … It doesn’t distinguish between past, present, and future, does it? So these myths and stories aren’t necessarily describing events in the ancient past, are they? Maybe Lovecraft’s whole mythos refers to events in our future.”10 Moore is patently aware of the perversion of the Annunciation and the Virgin Birth that he has Brears enacting here, and equally aware of the way that the Christ event was seen in medieval cosmology as the unfolding within temporality of a grand narrative existing and understood from outside of that cosmology. Like the Great Old Ones, the Christian God preexists and postdates the temporal flow of existence; like Augustine, He takes pleasure in reciting it as we would from reciting a psalm, savoring its words and its performance even as we know how it will go. What Lovecraft imagines as a sublime horror threatening the very fabric of reality, Christian doctrine seeks to reconcile with the things of this world. Moore’s equivocal updating keeps both visions uneasily counterpoised in the uneasy vehicle of his female protagonist’s body.
Arrival is much closer in its understated intensity to the Christian version of the outsider God than to the Lovecraftian abcanny, but the presence of the aliens and the underlying emotionality of the film ensure that we won’t forget either influence. In the figure of Amy Adams’s Louise, Arrival and its protagonist seek order out of chaos; for those viewers that found the conclusion transcendently moving, she succeeded. For those who found it overwrought or melodramatic, there is always the consolation of determinist physics to fall back on. A cynic might say that Villeneuve has domesticated Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones for mainstream consumption and grafted them onto the Christian allegory of a divine plan, just as the “Lovecraft moment” we are currently living may be at least partly a result of the “culture industry [having] started to work out how to monetize his aesthetics.”11 In this context, one can begin to understand why a rationalist scientist like Ian Donnelly would want to take his leave from such a scenario, however cruel that action may feel. Or one could choose to drop the positive and negative theology altogether as so much window dressing and wonder if Villeneuve is really thinking about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis applied to the language of cinema or, even more, the language of electronic devices. As much as it plays with Super-8 looks and as much as it captures the essence of a child’s life, Arrival’s celebrated opening montage of a girl’s brief life would not be out of place in an advertisement (“Shot on iPhone 7”) for the newest smartphone. As Chris Marker astutely observed already 50 years ago now, moving pictures are so perfectly suited as a medium for exploring the vagaries of time and memory that many people’s minds simply refuse to face up to the time-travel implications of a new ordering of reality they have otherwise long since ontologized: that no matter how well you order your chaos into sequential images, there are some facts that you simply cannot change.
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Unless otherwise indicated, all images are screenshots from freely available trailers on YouTube.
- That the campus scenes were filmed at the Université de Montréal provides a subtle and typically Canadian subtext of American invasion of the sovereignty of its northern neighbor. [↩]
- In a classic Canadian-filmmaking move, “Montana” is actually near the town of Rimouski, close to the bank of the St. Lawrence River, in the Bas-Saint-Laurent region of Quebec (Brian D. Johnson, “The Arrival of Denis Villeneuve,” Maclean’s Nov. 8, 2016). [↩]
- “The Punk Writer,” for example, notes the resemblance of the heptapods to Lovecraft’s “tentacled alien gods,” while carefully outlining the formal connections of Arrival to Lovecraft’s typical narrative structures. On the Lovecraft revival and what Benjamin Noys and Timothy S. Murphy term the “Lovecraft event,” see Noys and Murphy, “Introduction: Old and New Weird,” Genre 49.2 (2016): 117-34, and the special issue it introduced; and Carl H. Sederholm and Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock, The Age of Lovecraft (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2016). [↩]
- China Miéville, “On Monsters: Or, Nine or More (Monstrous) Not Cannies,” Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts 23.3 (2012): 377-92, at 380. [↩]
- Miéville, “On Monsters,” 381. [↩]
- Miéville, “Weird Fiction,” Routledge Companion to Science Fiction, ed. Mark Bould, Andrew M. Butler, Adam Roberts, Sherryl Vint (New York: Routledge, 2009), 510-15, at 511. [↩]
- Chiang, Ted. Stories of Your Life and Others (p. 137). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. [↩]
- Augustine, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2008), 241. [↩]
- Alan Moore, Neonomicon #4 (Rantoul, IL: Avatar, 2011), 23. [↩]
- Moore, Neomonicon #4, 25. [↩]
- Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock and China Miéville, “Afterword: Interview with China Miéville,” Age of Lovecraft, 231-43, at 237. [↩]