I preface this review by saying, I am rooting for Moonlight for best film. It's the most culturally significant of all the Academy nominees.
Arrival was my favorite film last year.
I am a YUGE sci-fi geek. YUGE. You’ll find me watching reruns of X-files and consuming Star Wars fan fiction on my off time. For the record, I LOVED Force Awakens but hated Rouge One. What was up with Forrest Whitaker and why is the female lead such a bore?
My dad let me stay up late to watch Mulder and Scully solve mysteries of the universe.
So naturally, anything about aliens gets my attention.
Not to mention that my grandfather was convicted that if Aliens did have a language it would be musical. He thought we would communicate with them through tuning forks. He was a brilliant acoustical engineer, world renowned in his studies, but I enjoyed his more colorful theories about the universe. That would be one of them.
What I didn’t expect was a film full of feminine values that quite frankly had me weeping. I don’t use the term weeping lightly here. I am talking a wet, snotty, ugly cry mess. It ripped my heart open in a way I wasn’t ready for.
Granted, I have been feeling vulnerable in our current climate. Ladies, you know what I mean. Current events got me feeling RAW. I want to stay informed, awake and active in my world but FUCK if it doesn’t wear me down. I am stirred up 99.9% of the time. As an artist, I feel like that is part of my edge. So I welcome the state.
Ok, back to the film. SPOILERS AHEAD, TURN BACK NOW.
A quick recap, I paraphrase: Alien ships appear on earth. They are attempting to communicate with humans. The world is compiling scientists and linguists to help figure out what they are saying and to understand their motives. Ever see Signs? Dr. Bimboo says, “There are only two reasons aliens will make contact with humans. One: They are friendly human beings and are looking to make contact in the spirit of exploration or two: They are hostile. They have consumed all their natural resources and are looking to inhabit a new planet.” Side note: I typed that dialogue from memory. #nerd
Enter Amy Allen, a soft spoken linguist who to is recruited to find out what the aliens are saying. Note, she is the only woman on the team. Her character slips back and forth between the present and to what we assume is the past where she is reliving the passing of her daughter. She decodes the language and attempts to explain the complexities of interpretation to the military who assumes position two from Dr. Bimboo: they are hostile. Fearing an intergalactic war Amy takes a leap of faith and sneaks into the spacecraft to make it right. She learns they chose her because of her ability to time travel.
Wait, what? Yes. She is a time traveler.
She hasn’t had her daughter yet. These were flash forwards the whole time. So she flashes forward to save the world and decides to have her daughter even though she knows she will die young. Gorgeous montage, life is amazing, credits roll. Cut to Melissa: Ugly cry face. Weeping. Sniffles. “Wow,” that was beautiful.
I know, I didn’t do that ending justice, but if you saw it … you know.
The narrative spoke to me. A smart woman busy “man-splaining,” language and it’s complexities within a male dominated field … I can relate. If I have to sit through one more man trying to explain to me how a camera works simply because he sees me holding one, I am going to scream. At least my job won’t effect the entire world if I can’t communicate with my peers.
Language. It matters. It is complex. I often feel like the lone woman in the room calling for clarity.
After I mopped my ugly cry, the next thing I did was google the writer. I needed to know who wrote such a beautiful science fiction film. I was convinced that I would find a female behind this story. The film honors feminine values and I was ready to applaud the woman behind it. What I discovered is that the film was written by a Chinese man, it was originally a short story that was later adapted for the screen.
I wished the film were made in Chinese. Cultural context is important. Chinese is a fluid written language. It would have paired better with the heptapod language than our clunky English. This is the only eye-roll the film gets from me. It forces the “America saves the world," and in particular “White people save the world,” narrative. I am over it. This from the woman who loves Star Wars … I know. I am a hypocrite. I own it.
In college, I studied Chinese and Japanese film. Their cultural narrative of time fascinated me the most. They believed the souls of their ancestors influenced the present. It was your job to honor them (and the family) by making good decisions. Most of our modern day ghost stories or horror films can be traced back to a shadow puppet plays. Credited as being the first movies, these stories were often about spirits interfering with the lives of the living. I think this is why the east consistently put out the scariest ghost movies, btw. Nothing scarier than an angry great grandmother coming to take revenge on you because you dishonored the family!
I instantly loved the art direction of shadow play with the heptapod language. A nice nod to the Chinese cultural roots. The pane of glass between aliens and humans became it's own shadow play. Language dancing between the two worlds like communicating ancestors through time. Way cool!
The present and the past co-mingling through ancestry is beautiful to me. Honor thy history. So when this film started to play with time, I jumped for joy. I had a feeling it was going to be good.
I loved the question the film left me with: If I knew I could go back in time and tell my self that someone I loved was going to die, would I still decide to follow that path in the future? In this case, out main character knows how it will play out and decides to dive in anyway. Tears. I agree. I would choose to do it all over again with the people I have lost in my life.
I can't wait to view it again with this new lens.