A Discussion: Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival

In this edition of a still-nameless feature, I talk to my friend Ashley about a film that moves me to tears every time I watch it: Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival. There’s a little love for Michael Stuhlbarg, disappointment with love, and frustration with aliens’ names. There are some spoilers, so proceed with caution.

Peter: Where should we start with Arrival?

Ashley: Michael Stuhlbarg was pretty great in it, wasn’t he?

Peter: Like I said in my tweets last night, he’s starting to grow on me. I think the first thing I’d seen him in was Trumbo, and not only was it the first thing, but I’d never even heard of him before. I was taken to task for not seeing him in A Solitary Man (I love the Coens), but that movie has slipped through the cracks. But, as for his role in Arrival, now that I’ve seen him in 6,000 other films in the last three years, I appreciate him retroactively. Does that make sense?

Ashley: This is the perfect film to be discussing retroactive timing, so it makes perfect sense. I enjoy him quite a bit, and I’m not exactly a fan of the Coens, but loved A Solitary Man. He has been in a lot recently, thankfully, maybe he got some new representation or something. I can only hope this trend continues. I had actually forgotten that he was in Arrival, so that was a nice sort of surprise.

Peter: He was really good in The Shape of Water. A very sympathetic character, and just well-played.

So, your 2-star rating on Letterboxd. Tell me a little bit about that.

Ashley: I typically struggle with films contingent upon a “twist” or drastic shift. I felt as though the third act of Arrival betrayed the first two, a bit. The Amy Adams character, Louise, leaves me with a lot of questions once the last 30 minutes of the film play out. The film also seems to me like a stylized variant of films that came before it, which can be a good thing if it adds something to what it is building off of.

Peter: What questions were you left with?

Ashley: Is her character a god-like metaphor? Is she omniscient? She is capable of tapping into these “memories” (for lack of a better term) of the future seemingly at will. Most of her memories are about her or from her own life, and it seemed, to me, to be wrapped up a bit too nicely by her being able to recall a phone number that solved all the issues regarding the weaponization of science.

Peter: I don’t think she’s a god-like metaphor, or necessarily omniscient (at least when it comes to events not surrounding her life), but she’s definitely a more…aware…person now. I also didn’t see the part with the phone call to be as much her recalling the phone number as it is happening simultaneously. When they figure out that the aliens’ language is non-linear, I applied that to everything happening. She can access the beginning and the end; and not just her, “everyone” will have the same opportunity.

Ashley: I appreciate your read a lot more than mine. So do you see that relating to her life in a way that even though she knows she will give birth to a child that will die in youth, she would still go on to have the child because there is some version of the child accessible in her non-linear accessibility to time?

Peter: In a way, yes. I also think it’s just more about love. If you know that your life can be filled with so much love, even if there is a tragic end (and there always is, right?), why wouldn’t you give yourself that opportunity. Now, I got into a discussion with someone on Twitter who said that this film is basically an anti-abortion message. Maybe that’s true to a point, but I don’t think that’s necessarily the intended message. Louise is alone at the beginning, she finds someone who is a kindred spirit, she comes to understand that a child will be born and die, and through all of that is felt the tremendous amount of love. Love is stronger than anything and everything; she wanted to be filled with that. And yes, being able to access her daughter in a different way than we can in the real world probably played a huge part in her decision. It’s just sad that Ian either doesn’t understand, can’t access the language/time as Louise can, or both.

Ashley: I think you’re exactly right that the message of the film is one of love and how love overpowers everything else. That may be why I am so unable to connect with it. Philosophically, I have an aversion to the notion that love is a driving lifeforce. I also can’t subscribe to antinatalism, but often ponder about the realistic philosophy that the only way to avoid suffering is to never have been born. I don’t mean to get into the weeds here, but I think the fact that this film sort of counters two issues I have with the world prevented me from being able to connect with it in a meaningful way.

Peter: I have never met anyone who isn’t cool with love! I’m joking. All films are a personal journey. Even comedies to a certain extent. Arrival just really hits me hard on that personal level; I put myself and my experiences into the film, and then think of my daughters. As you’ve no doubt seen on my Twitter feed, my girls are my life, so when there’s a movie that plucks those strings, I become a complete mess. What I’m saying is that I’m crying like a baby by the end of the film.

Now, the philosophical discussion of the film could take us forever to get through. There again, it’s a personal journey.

Ashley: You’re right, we bring our own emotional journey to the films that we see, therefore, perceive them so differently. That’s my favorite part of film as a medium, also why I enjoy these discussions we have so much. I love hearing about how something resonated with you, and looking at the films we discuss through a broadened lens. It’s also great as a means to rewatch something I otherwise wouldn’t have. There is usually something I can pluck out of the rewatch that didn’t hit me as strongly before. This time I was more invested into what the film was saying in regards to the fervor with which nations seek to own collective parts of the world, in this instance science, to use it for their personal benefit.

Peter: You talked about the weaponization of science, but I also think this film showed the weaponization of language. It was reiterated a number of times about the necessity of understanding basic concepts before moving on to “What is your purpose here?”, and the realization that China was approaching communication as a game was very powerful for me. We’ve seen, especially in the last year, how language can indeed be weaponized. It’s always been so, but the film was a good analog for our current environment even if it was released before the shit hit the fan.

Ashley: I most definitely agree! And, as you mention, language has always had the capacity to be used as a weapon, we’ve seen that more overtly in the past year. That bit in the film where the difference between tools and weapons had a huge impact because that line is so often blurred, especially in today’s political landscape.

Peter: What are your feelings on Denis Villeneuve as a director?

Ashley: I’ve only seen four of his films (Prisoners, Sicario, Arrival, and Incendies) and out of those four I’ve only liked one (Prisoners). I liked it a lot, I think I gave it 4.5 stars on Letterboxd, but I really didn’t like Sicario and hated Incendies. I appreciate his commitment to the aesthetic value he creates, but I’m not that fond of it. I realize though that I am operating from a small sample set, so I should definitely see more.

Peter: He’s a genius. Let me explain why: I pretty much hated Amy Adams before seeing Arrival (although I did like her in American Hustle). After Arrival, and Nocturnal Animals, I’ve truly come to appreciate her. And, my lack of love for the original Blade Runner is well-known, but I absolutely loved Blade Runner 2049. So, the fact that he got me to appreciate Amy Adams and love a sequel to a film I don’t love is nothing short of amazing. Like you, I’m using a small sample, as the only other film of his I’ve seen is Sicario (which I really liked).

There’s one other aspect of the film that really stood out to me, and that was the very limited use of a score and sort of an unconventional use of it in certain spots. Johann Johannsson deserves a lot of credit for creating the atmosphere throughout. The music when the alien ships were around was almost a cross between a sound effect and an actual “alien theme”. And of course the score surrounding Louise and Hannah was very touching.

Ashley: We share a mutual appreciation of the score and the unique way it and the sound design was used. That was a huge standout for me, as well, and am certain that the atmosphere would not have been actualized without Johannsson’s contribution.

Peter: So let’s go back to the “twist”. When did you realize what was actually happening? Did you/do you try to figure those things out as you’re watching, or do you let the play out and just kind of immerse yourself in the moment?

Ashley: I try as much as possible to live in the moment, I seek that fully immersive experience when watching films. I realized what was going on when Louise and Hannah were discussing Hannah’s name being a palindrome, which I believe was pretty late in the film. What is your method; do you try to figure everything out or immerse yourself in the moment? At what point did you realize what was going on?

Peter: It depends on the film. With Arrival I tried to figure it out right away because there obviously is something to figure out. Sometimes, though, it’s fun to just sit back and let a movie wash over you. It happens less frequently with movies that are complex; I like to work through what may be happening. You and I briefly tweeted about Miss Sloane; the end of that movie was given away very early on, so when we got there it was a huge disappointment. That’s an example of paying too much attention leading to a crappy payoff. As for Arrival, I figured it out, although not entirely, just before the bomb went off and the Abbott (we’ll get back to the names in a moment) sprayed the language all over the barrier. It was at that moment I knew that the language was about time.

Arrival (2)

Ashley: That’s a sometimes negative aspect of going for that immersive experience. Using that method I go for no distractions while I’m watching something but occasionally, as is the case with Miss Sloane, paying that much attention leads to disappointment. Also, paying such close attention can often mean that one can work out what is going on organically, which is usually a good thing, though no always.

Peter: Basically, it’s a blessing and a curse to be so smart is what you’re saying, right?

Ashley: Haha, I guess so.

Peter: So, the names. Abbott and Costello. That’s the one thing that really bothered me about this movie. I mean, couldn’t they have picked names that were from a comedy duo that is actually funny?

Ashley: “And on next week’s episode, Peter and Ashley discuss everyone’s favorite Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man” I’m fond of that duo. Are we supposed to take the selection of their names as a nod to the way they played with language in the “Who’s on First” bit?

Peter: Y’know, I didn’t even think of that; that’s an interesting question. I still hate the choice, though. The bottom line: Arrival worked on so many levels, from writing, acting, and through to direction. And then they ruin it all with this! Okay, not really.

Can we agree that Amy Adams was robbed of an Oscar nomination in favor of Meryl Streep that year?

Ashley: Oh Peter, you had to add writing in your list of what worked. I was actually wondering while rewatching Arrival how much those names would take you out of it, at least in that moment.

She probably, maybe, was more deserving than Streep that year of the nomination. I’m still upset that Isabelle Huppert lost, though.

For more movie opinions, follow Ashley on Twitter @oOoOoBarracuda, and check out her Letterboxd page, too. You can find me on Twitter (linked over there on the right), Letterboxd, and right here in the Back Row, Center Seat. See you next time!

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