Sci-fi is one of those genres that can get easily hokey. Because of this, it’s always fun and refreshing to see the genre taken seriously, by both its creators and its audiences. This isn’t to say that Attack of the Killer Tomatoes isn’t worthy of critical thought too. Rather, in the shitty landscape of couched classism within cinema, methinks that non-drama-centric genre films often are treated like red-headed stepchildren (especially when it comes to the prestige-laden awards like the Oscars.) Now, Adam has just pulled my ear to remind me that since 2010, films like Mad Max: Fury Road, District 9, and The Martian have been nominated for said awards. And I clearly I must concede, I’m not a post-truther ya’ll. Pero: I’d like to unpack how sci-fi is in a late adolescent stage where it’s putting its capes, goggles and JNCO jeans in the closet in order to take that suit and tie job at the A&P down the road.
But let’s talk about the film at hand first, yeah?
Within the context above, Arrival is a bittersweet achievement.
On one hand, it’s a cerebral and meticulous take on a hallowed sci-fi trope, the enigmatic appearance of extraterrestrials. And it’s pretty damn good. Between Louise (Amy Adams), Ian (Jeremy Renner), and Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), the story of one linguist’s struggle to understand exactly what the aliens want is worth your time and money. As much as characters run in and out of frame, this trio hold the film together, guiding your emotional reactions and logical conclusions in a way that feels real. A large part of this has to do with the film’s centering on translation and language. Every major dramatic turn is really just about how and what the team is able to interpret from the aliens, and how those near them interpret those interpretations. In Louise’s words, via Ian: “the glue of any civilization is language.”
That first meta conversation, on the flow and construction of thought via language dominates the majority of the film and is multi-layered in said domination. Louise the linguist and Ian the physicist spar with the aliens as much as they spar with each other. On one hand, they’re tackling the constant translation between the literally unexplainable alien language and much less advanced human scientific thought and language. From deciphering squiggly space ink to the troped out “the answer is actually a very simple concept that I totally wasn’t thinking of,” they drive through the story, taking us on a journey that feels both whimsical and real.
Conversely, there is the metaphorical translation and lingual sparring between the academics and the military. At each new milestone in the narrative, Louise and Ian are often battling Colonel Weber and his higher ups, working to explain their thoughts in ways that can calm or meet the more tangible ideas and notions that the military and global intelligence forces hold.
While dialogue, characters and language as a theme are able to guide us through a cyclical narrative that takes interesting turns, things like lighting also serve us. Bathing nearly everything in whites, blues, greens, yellows, and browns, Bradford Young brings a spectral and elemental quality to each shot, and in varying ways.
For instance, when you finally meet the aliens, they’re consistently wading in this thick white mist. With their charcoal-to-black skin providing heavy contrast to the obfuscation of the mist, they stand out and blend in at the same time. It’s weird and unsettling. But it’s also kinda cool. Communicating in inky circular script, clicks and bassy moans, they seem more dreamlike than tangible, more figment of our imaginations than intergalactic beings. This of course serves a purpose that I won’t spoil (omg I’m not spoiling shit again. wtf is going on?) But for now, all you need to know is that it’s really intentional.
In larger strokes, this kind of use of color and linking it to the lingual thematics of the film, ground Arrival in a world that is calm almost to the point of being unnerving. I personally point to the fact that the palette itself is built on neutral and calming colors (blues, greens, blacks, whites, greys, browns). The most aggressive color that ever appears is a deep golden yellow. And even then its usage accompanies scenes that aren’t quite what you think they are until all is revealed.
This unnerving calm permeates the film too. And it ties directly into Arrival’s flirtation with the idea of dreams and other things. This is also the part where I slow clap Bradford Young, btw. This man is a master of light and color, and Arrival is a testament to his ability to weave themes and feelings out of the two.
“So dap, why is this movie bittersweet again?” Good question reader. This is difficult for me to verbalize right, but I’ll do my best.
I think Arrival is a compromise of sorts because it takes the genre seriously, but it painstakingly hits all the points needed to also be considered for some vaguely dick-shaped golden paperweight. It does the work to get awards like said paperweight. And make the idea of genres like sci-fi respectable in the eyes of the academy. And that makes me feel itchy. Again, if we bounce back to that idea of classism: high-level genre films are often caught in a zero-sum game. On one hand they can take their path seriously and provide new or refined ground upon which the field can explore or stake new claims. But if they do, they often pursue a high-flying ideal of genre, upper crust awards be damned. This often leads to films that are purely about the form, leaving much to be desired in terms of anything else. On the other hand, if they choose to consider awards season, certain tenets become mandatory inclusions that must also be given time and space. In most of these films, you’ll often see this manifest as overbearing dramatic arcs, too much attention paid to romantic situations, etc.
Hear that noise in the background? That’s Adam yelling at me because my arguments are flying in every direction. Yes: everything has a dramatic arc. And of course, many sci-fi films have a romantic situation. And I’m sure you’re asking what the hell “highbrow” is, specifically.
Lemme explain. Or again, try to.
In my mind, and maybe mine alone, the difference in a dramatic arc of a prestige film vs. a more “pure” (if that word can even be used here because genre is indeed fluid) genre film is this: spectacle and theme. In a prestige film, the drama is often hinged on an overbearing concept that subsumes the theatrics of the sci-fi things. And in some cases, the theatrics, spectacle and more genre-specific things are reduced to vehicles for this dramatic theme. (I’m looking at you, Interstellar.) In a sense, they’re always drama films masquerading something lesser. The focus is always a “serious” dramatic bent and anything else is treated as window-dressing, as lesser.
In this case, we know these films: they bait us with awesome things just to give us a series of monologues and haunting looks into other characters or the distance. Considering the roots of cinema in the stage, it makes sense that the folks who award these films would be prejudiced to the performance vs. the world in which those performances live. (And even that can be up for argument, because Andy Serkis can act more with a few grunts and without even being there than some of your faves. Word to Caesar and Smeagol.)
And maybe that’s my gripe: sci-fi is all about world-building and concepts. When we make them secondary to just a performance or romance or some other actorly thing, we miss the forest for the trees. Sometimes it’s about the chestburster leaping out and attacking someone. Sometimes it’s about that singular moment where the lightsaber is activated. Sometimes it’s just about the cool shit, for the sake of it and the idea it spouts from. Which is why so many people love Star Wars, even though some of the saga has some of the worst acting and cookie cutter storytelling this side of the galaxy. Similarly, it’s why people love Fury Road. Because fuck yeah it’s a 2 hour road trip through Trump’s America. But who cares? It’s awesome, and it leaves enough space in between to do drama and we don’t complain.
So, I think, in Arrival’s case, it’s about the middle road. The film carries its sci-fi pedigree. But it also falls into some weird Oscar-bait things that are unmistakable by the time the credits roll. It does what it needs to do, but the jig is also up because we can see that it’s almost trying really hard to look unbothered. No filmmaker doesn’t want an Oscar. Shit, I’d like to have one sitting around. But, simultaneously, we know what sacrifices and allowances have to be made in the art sometimes in order for that golden peen to hang out in our homes.
So, can I necessarily blame the folks behind Arrival for the product, knowing their hearts are probably just as torn as mine? Am I just making an argument for the sake of the art, knowing damn well that filmmaking is about as profitable as a elephant strip club? And, to not be a hypocrite: how many times have I shat on films that go for pure spectacle and leave no formal space for things that actually get you from story point A to story point C? Would we really be able to translate a circular ink language from a species of intergalactic squid monsters?
I don’t have a lot of answers to any of those things fam. All I do know for certain is that, maybe, my frustration comes from the fact that the genre is being accepted more on larger platforms. But, in the back of my head, the angry artist in me keeps asking “at what cost?” What is being cut out to make way for more tangible dialogue, or a kissing scene, or something else that becomes the proverbial clickbait for academy voters every year? That tension is what keeps me vigilant. But it’s also what gives me hope, for films big and small.
And so I pray. I pray that more films like Arrival continue to break ground, and are critiqued accordingly, without the idea surrounding them being “let’s make a genre film that could win an Oscar.” Rather, I want (and hope) that the creative folks, who love genre like some of us do, are working to just make awesome, interesting films, however they end up looking. Because fuck “The Academy.” Too long have the money, resources and narrative of Cinema™ been guided by this need to adhere to traditions that are as arbitrary as they are restrictive. And when it comes to genre, and sci-fi especially, we (as audiences and creators) need not limit ourselves for the sake of them.
Dap owns Timberland boots and is committed to loving black women, eating good food and diversifying media as he sees fit and while he can. He can be found yelling into the abyss and being snarky on the following: IG | Twitter