It’s particularly fascinating to imagine alternative perceptions of time, because the nature of time is still an unsettled matter in the physical sciences. Which is to say: It’s entirely possible that our perception of time is limited in some profound way. And so, yeah, it was an inspired choice to have this advanced intelligence give humans the gift of omnitemporal perception, and to have it be received by a linguist. But just like Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, the filmmakers couldn’t resist making the heroine into a Pietà figure, a Mary grieving her lost child. It’s like they knew they had a cerebral story on their hands, and decided they needed to artificially graft on emotion by introducing the most tragic stakes possible. As an audience, we never really come to know Louise’s daughter. She comes across like this blurry, indistinct presence, like the faceless preppy kids in Inception. And yet, she’s supposed to be the emotional core of Louise’s story.
But that’s probably the worst thing I can say about this film. I can’t wait to watch it again. I really loved how they used non-humanoid aliens, and that they resembled the octopus, the great shapeshifter and chameleon of the oceans. You know, an octopus can recognize individual human faces? The octopus traveled a radically different evolutionary path than human beings. Its brain is distributed all through its body. It might be Earth’s closest thing to an alien intelligence.
Arrival’s sleek spaceships were nice, too, although, for me, they fell short of Kubrick’s monoliths, which remain, in their Platonic simplicity, cinema’s most striking alien artifacts. The first entry into the spaceship was one of the most wondrous scenes in the film, especially that moment when Ian, the physicist, feels the alternate gravity kick in. Everyone else shakes it off and starts walking toward the light. For them, gravity is just another quality of personal experience. It’s a perception, mere phenomena. But for Ian, it’s a fundamental law of the universe. Arrival is, in many ways, a film about revelation, and in that moment, Ian is like Paul thrown from the horse.
I’m going on too long! I’m like the alien in Arrival who blasts hundreds of thousands of circle-y symbols onto the glowing surface between us. I should pass the conch shell back to you. But before I do, I want to ask you a question. In the past, you and I have talked about Close Encounters of the Third Kind, another plausible candidate for “best ‘first contact’ film ever,” and I know you’re not a fan. What don’t you like about it?
Megan: It’s true! I’m not a fan. And, actually, my non-love of Close Encounters has to do with what we’ve been talking about already: the wonder stuff. And also the family stuff! Close Encounters works, primarily, as an action movie, and in that respect it’s totally compelling. As a quest story, and as a yarn, it’s great. But when it comes to the meeting that makes the movie—the pathos of that moment, and, yes, the wonder of it—Close Encounters, ultimately, left me cold. In part, that was because the plot of the movie—the idea that Roy’s mind was both his own and, somehow, also the aliens’—made it hard for me to fully empathize with him. But it was also because the real emotional core of the film, Roy’s relationship with his family, got completely disregarded in the film’s self-styledly “epic” conclusion. I love Terri Garr, and I love her character in Close Encounters, and it struck me as both frustrating and supremely sad how her story, and her family’s, were essentially victims, in the end, of the movie’s almost childish enthusiasm for its alien creatures.