Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Not arriving

The Old Curmudgeon (um, that's me) says science-fiction movies have been on a steady decline since 2001. Well, since 1968 when 2001: A Space Odyssey was released. 2001 was widely seen as the first adult sci-fi movie, one that was not intended for kiddies or the feeble-minded. There were no bug-eyed monsters, no blasting laser beams, no buxom women in skintight spacesuits. It made an implicit claim to verisimilitude—we all thought this might really be what space travel could be like in the year 2001—and involved issues of morality and philosophy. This film was thought to be the harbinger of a new wave of SF movies. [I’m going to use SF from here on in, as this abbreviation caught on briefly in the 60s when it was thought it could stand for both science fiction and the larger genre of speculative fiction.]
Now, it looks like 2001 (the climax of which is pictured above) was more a dead end than a new route. Though it was popular and commercially successful, most of what came after it seemed to be a reaction against the direction in which it was pointing. To be fair, the dialogue was (intentionally) banal, there wasn't much of a narrative—and what there was presented elliptically with a wildly ambiguous ending—and the pace was slow. And, of course, it was made by a cinematic genius, Stanley Kubrick. Maybe there was nowhere to go from here except backwards, way back to the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers B-movie serials of the 1940s, but with bigger budgets (Star Wars, etc.)

I have followed rather casually the flow of SF movies over the years and though few have attempted to follow 2001 (maybe Solaris and Sunshine), many have stuck to the modified space opera formula of Star Wars. But with Close Encounters of the Third Kind, another genre strand emerged: the personal, intimate SF film, leaving behind the monster scares of Them! and Tarantula, and thecosmic philosophies of 2001, to focus on an individual's personal journey. It may still have impressive SF effects but it often comes down to being about the transformation of one person or family. Examples include Blade Runner, Moon, Interstellar, and The Martian, hitting bottom with the execrable Signs, which was about how God sent a huge destructive alien force to Earth just to teach Mel Gibson to be a better father. Of course, no matter how scientific science fiction stories get, they have to be about people to give us a way in. But instead of focusing on the awe of the science, or the scientific mysticism, or the possibilities of the future—all of which Close Encounters did very well, while still being about people and family—most of these recent films put the SF stuff in the background while foregrounding the personal story, instead of, more or less, vice versa. (To clarify, I like some of these movies, most notably Blade Runner, but am not crazy about this being the "winning" genre.)

I thought that Arrival might be different. The film, which feels like an update of The Day the Earth Stood Still, is about the arrival on Earth of large, hovering spaceships piloted by creatures who can't speak our language. It got rave reviews and is up for several Oscars. The lead actors give very good performances. Amy Adams is a linguist who, we come to believe, is divorced and has recently lost her daughter to cancer, and is sort of sleepwalking through life when she is approached by the military to try and figure out the language of the aliens. Jeremy Renner is a physicist who is part of her project team and with whom she develops a close and trusting relationship. At first, their process of learning to communicate with what they call Heptapods (they look a bit like octopi with seven tentacles) moves slowly, and the researchers in all the countries in which the aliens have landed share the knowledge they gain. But soon Russia and China become distrustful of the visitors and cut off communication. Because of the fear that some nations may use force against the Heptapods, Adams and Renner soon have a very tight timetable.

As the demands of the traditional puzzle narrative would insist, Adams has a breakthrough just in the nick of time. But, as in an M. Night Shyamalan narrative, this solution ends up changing our perception of much of what we thought was going on. No spoilers here, though I will say that I rather liked the twist involving the alien language, but was less excited about how that twist affected the rest of the story. The cosmic "awe" that I thought I was headed for here turns into a kind of sloppy "Awwww…" involving the fates of our characters. I'm sure part of my reaction is just me being recalcitrant and looking back fondly on 60s and 70s cinema which will never return, but I felt doubly disappointed in Arrival because it was so highly praised. I'm thinking I'd better lower my expectations for La La Land.

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