Nov 18, 2016

Gift of the Future

alien clam shell in Hollywood
Yes, I'm fascinated by stories about time travel, so I saw Arrival. Sadly, this film is not about time travel.

I'm also fascinated by stories about alien life forms. Sadly, although Arrival presents an interesting depiction of an imagined alien form of life, the film is not about space aliens.

In Arrival, the alien heptapods apparently come from a world where the atmosphere is much denser than that of Earth. We learn almost nothing else about the aliens, in particular, nothing about their advanced technology. We don't even know if the 12 big black boxes clam shells are spacecraft; they just magically appear on Earth and later magically disappear.

Why they are here
Abbott and Costello routine:
Once they get their soldiers inside,
you're a dead heptapod.
The heptapods are here on Earth to make a movie. Their purpose as characters in Arrival is to remind us that in Hollywood it is almost impossible to tell a story about meeting aliens without playing the military card, having at least one explosion and pretending that the arrival of space aliens might herald the end of the world.

The heptapods seem very careful to not harm anyone on Earth until one strange scene (never explained), briefly on the screen in Arrival, in which one of the 12 alien spacecraft black schoolhouses settles down on some power lines, starting a mad scramble for safety by a crowd of hapless humans.
Extraordinary rendition: the focus group
decided that Arrival was too boring
unless someone in the Middle East got electrocuted.

Of course, by the end of the flick, peace is restored and the world has been saved. Whew!

written heptapod language (source)
Arrival is a fairy tale about how we Earthlings all need to communicate better and get along with each other. Towards that end, the heptapods set up 12 floating one-room schoolhouses on Earth and wait for their star pupil (Louise) to show up.

spectral analysis of what might be an alien spoken language
Sadly for the token physicist in the story (Jeremy Renner), he never gets to learn anything cool about the advanced alien technology such as how the heptapods can control gravity.

Renner does not have much to do in this flick. He gets to name the two aliens in Arrival "Abbot" and "Costello" and he provides one magic sperm cell to Louise. The alien schoolhouses are language schools, not schools of physics or technical colleges for teaching primitive apes about advanced technology.

Alien schoolhouse: a tough nut to
crack for our star pupil,
the linguist Louise
The heptapods seem to have a spoken language, but they teach Louise a written "universal" language that has circular sentences.

Along the way, during the months required for Louise to learn the alien language, as a distraction from the boring language lessons, and because this is Hollywood, we get tanks rolling across the wheat fields of Montana, nut job internet fear mongering and a squozen-in domestic terrorism bombing.

This is Hollywood,
someone break out the
automatic weapons!
But then, after the union-required effort to build suspense, not only is the world saved by the end of the movie, but the nations of the world have come together for some sort of unification party. Kumbaya.

The aliens squirt what looks like ink out of their feet. The 'ink" magically forms into circular sentences. At one point in the film, after she has started having "visions" of the future, Louise seems to be able to take control of the "writing" process. What's going on?
Louise (Amy Adams) interacting with the black "ink". I want to believe that these are clouds of nanites.

The obligatory explosion
What if the heptapods are artificial life forms that are part biological (poor 'Abbott' proves the mortality of the heptapods) and part composed of nanites?

Technology-assisted telepathy
futile attempt to teach
English to the heptapods
We never actually see the heptapods speaking their presumed whale-like "spoke language" (do they even have mouths?). What if they usually make use of a form of technology-assisted telepathy? If so, then (and only when dealing with primitive creatures such as humans?) maybe they can use telepathically guided clouds of nanites when they need to "print out" messages in their universal written language.

decoding the "universal"
language of the heptapods
During the film, we are told that Louise learns the heptapod-created  universal language, but she learns amazingly little about the heptapods. For one brief time in the movie, we see linguistic reality: when Louise and the heptapods are sharing actions and concepts and words such as "walking". However, the heptapods never seem to put much effort into the process of teaching their language to Louise. Maybe it is some kind of intelligence test, the heptapods may wonder: is there an ape on this planet smart enough to learn our language, to receive our gift? Or, since they can see the future, they already know.

vision of the future: the
unborn daughter of Louise
Suddenly, in the middle of all the hard work required to learn the new language, Louise has a vision of a book that she will write (in the future) about the universal language and she then magically knows the language.

What if the heptapods have access to advanced technology that allows them to know about events in the future? (ya, I'm not buying the silly idea that by learning the "right" language you can magically view the future.) They state that humans will be useful to the heptapods 3,000 years in the future, so (because 'cause' and 'effect' are meaningless technicalities in Hollywood) they must give a "gift" to the people of Earth here in the 21st century.

The heptapods finally provide an info dump
After learning the heptapod language, does Louise suddenly have a new cognitive ability: the ability to "see the future"? It is far easier for me to imagine that with their advanced nanotechnology, the heptapods can provide Louise with implanted "false memories".

Imagine that those false memories are experienced by Louise as visions of the future, a future that the heptapods have already viewed by using their advanced technology for  viewing future times. At the start of Arrival, Louise, narrating for her future daughter, tells us that she has had to re-conceptualize how memories "work".

Time Loop
"We claim the South China Sea
and no aliens are allowed!"
In Arrival, here's how the world is saved from fear-mongering and military finger-on-the-trigger twitchiness. 18 months after the Chinese almost go to war with the benevolent heptapods, the war-mongering Chineese general whispers to Louise the magic words that will stop the war. The Louise of that future time does not know what the general is talking about. But the Louise of 18 months previously gets the message from the general of the future and relays it to the general of the past and so Louise prevents the war. Hurray!

The first rule of Hollywood: never
pass up a chance to start a fictional war.
Eh? Well, nothing need make sense in Hollywood. We reached the 2 hour point of the film, so we needed to wrap things up quickly. Just turn up the volume of the violins and roll the credits.

This could all possibly make sense if it was the heptapods who learned the general's magic words in the future. Just before the war was to start, they could have used their nanotechnology to make Louise speak the magic words to the general, preventing the war. Or something.

the needed sequel
Contact (1997 film)
I was encouraged to go to the theater and watch Arrival after seeing some reviewers favorably compare the two movies. Unfortunately, Carl Sagan and Robert Zemeckis set the bar quite high in Contact. Ted Chiang and Denis Villeneuve don't measure up.

Ever since Herbert Wells made the first famous alien invasion story, writers have milked the analogy between alien invaders and human invaders. Hollywood really can't seem to escape from that myth.

Martian: War of the Worlds
The fundamental fact is, if space aliens ever visit Earth, they are likely to be far more technologically advanced than we Earthlings. A Wells-type alien invasion is very unlikely. Carl Sagan managed to keep Hollywood's adaptation of his story about First Contact from going down the conventional alien invasion plot hole. The folks who made Arrival could not resist the temptation to make human fear of alien invasion central to the film.

War of the Worlds
The alien heptapods seem complicit in fulfilling Hollywood's need for explosions, death and mindless conflict arising from fear. Supposedly they can foresee the future, but they let everything play out according to the Hollywood script. In fact, it goes deeper than that: the meek and mild heptapods seem to have gone to a great deal of trouble to provoke a human fear response. In Hollywood, there must be a crisis that the hero can suddenly diffuse in some miraculous way at the last possible moment. Yawn.

The Horror
Language 101
I have not read 'Story of Your Life', the short story by Ted Chiang that inspired Arrival. Arrival was written by Eric Heisserer who put in all of the Hollywood-flavored nonsense about the Chinese planning an unprovoked attack on the peaceful heptapods. As a science fiction fan, I wish Arrival could have been spared the riots, saber rattling and explosion and instead viewers could have learned more about the heptapods, their advanced technology, and their alien physiology.

This isn’t sexy, do we need this?"
I must ask: in creating Arrival, why select a screen writer (Heisserer) who has previously worked on a series of horror flicks? In "How I Wrote Arrival (and What I Learned Doing It)", Heisserer writes, "science fiction was my first literary love" and as he tells the story of his own life, it was a fluke that the folks in Hollywood tracked him into writing mostly for horror movies. How very sad.

Hollywood 101
In my view, science fiction is a literature of ideas. It is unfortunate that in Hollywood there is a bias against thoughtful exposition and a bias towards mindless acts of violence. I guess we should be pleased that Arrival turned out as good as it did after passing through the Hollywood sausage grinder.

Should we be thankful for this Arrival?
Given the alien forces at work in Hollywood, we can be thankful that Arrival only has one explosion and only one shootout. We also bump up against the Hollywood maximum limit for rational exposition about the heptapods, but then, Arrival is not about the heptapods. For science fiction fans looking for an interesting story about aliens, we mostly come up ◯.

Related reading: the Search for Interesting Hollywood Aliens

Next: the sentient spaceship Many Sails
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