Arrival (2016): Tell (Me) Your Story

This weekend, I saw Arrival (2016), starriarrival-1024x682ng Amy Adams, who I’ve loved since Julie & Julia (2009). Others have already written about this movie and its eerie prescience to this year’s election and global climate, so I won’t comment on that other than to say, echoing the young woman walking out of the theater ahead of us: “my mind is blown.”

I’ll start this review by discussing the end of the film rather than the beginning, which seems appropriate given the film and its approach to time. As the film draws to a close, Louise Banks (Amy Adams) saves the world by calling China and saying, in Mandarin so that the audience doesn’t understand, “In war, there are no winners, only widows.” This one phrase helps the Chinese president understand that his actions will not solve any issues, that his actions might just cause unnecessary pain and death. It’s important that the audience doesn’t understand what she said (unless you speak Mandarin), we know only that her WORDS provide the means of reconciliation that are needed and saves the planet from a completely unneeded conflict.

From the beginning of the film, words and their power are emphasized. This really is a movie that could be described as a meditation on language. When Louise first meets Ian (Jeremy Renner), he’s reading from her book and reads a quote aloud: “language is the first weapon drawn in a conflict.” She seems mildly embarrassed and somewhat defensive about her own choice of words from this book; this moment, one that floats by almost unnoticed, but it provides the key to unravelling the mystery of the heptapods and their place here on Earth and, perhaps, our own purpose.

(This idea reminds me a quote I had hanging outside of my office door for years (from Isaac Brock of Modest Mouse): “Language is the liquid that we’re all dissolved in. / Great for solving problems, after it creates a problem.” It is this idea — that language can be messy and hard and awful but that at the same time it can be beautiful and create empathy and solve problems — that anchors Louise. She never stops believing in the power of words and story, even when alternative answers seem to present themselves. This belief is key, and one that we all need to hang on to even harder than we have before.)

maxresdefaultOne of the big questions of the film has to do with story. If we know all that will happen to us in advance, what would we change? This isn’t a new question. Think of Hamlet and his nearly endless dithering, caused not by cowardice (despite what he says) but by consciousness. It is only when he decides that predestination (knowing the story in advance) matters less than being ready for the story to come that he can finally “let be.” This is exactly the reason Louise makes a conscious decision to have a child, even though that child will die from some sort of illness at a young age. Her knowledge of the future doesn’t stop her from appreciating the moment, the present, and the potential impact that the child has on the world. This may seem a controversial decision, but to me, it wasn’t. We can’t know what the world would have been like without her daughter; what we do know is that Louise’s love for her daughter is big enough that it helps her find the courage that she needs to break through the language barrier and actually communicate with the heptapods and with the Chinese president.

The other big question of the film is the one that Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) tells Louise to ask the heptapods and one that philosophers have been asking for eons: “What is your purpose on Earth?” The scene where she explains the linguistics of that question is another that may go by unnoticed, but it shouldn’t. As Louise works through the parts of the sentence, we are there with her and we should, I hope, begin to think about this question as it applies to ourselves. What is our purpose on Earth? Are we here as a short-lived part of the Earth’s history, destroying all that is around us, burning the world down because of fear? Or, are we here to learn, to communicate, to come together, and to grow? Since the heptapods are coming back in 3,000 years, it seems the latter. And that is hopeful and optimistic (link here to NPR’s Linda Holmes’s review about the optimism of the movie).

If you think of these pieces together (language as a weapon; the importance of story; the questioning of our purpose here on Earth), we see why she chooses to reach out and communicate, even at a point where there seems no reason to do so. She’s the one who understands that communication is commonly fraught with miscommunication. So, the heptapods may use a word like “weapon” when they actually mean something closer to “tool.” Again, that scene where she first meets Ian is important here. She knows that language itself can be used as a weapon. But that weapon doesn’t always have to lead to hurt; language can be used to soothe or to clarify. She knows that through the power of story, we can connect with each other. And through that connection, we can begin to realize the importance of love and have empathy for others.

Complex, thoughtful film. I’m not ready to say it’s one of my favorite sci-fi films of all time… yet. I am ready to say that I’ll be seeing this one again. And maybe again. And again.

If you watched this movie and loved it as much as I did, you might want to check out a few more things that inform the movie:

 

 

 

 

Star Trek: Beyond (2016) Should Win for New Category at the Oscars — Best Use of a Beastie Boys’ Song

Okay, if you haven’t gone to see Star Trek: Beyond at the theaters yet, get yourself to theater posthaste. Get a big bucket of popcorn and get ready for a fun, wild ride.Now, I usually don’t write reviews for those who haven’t seen the movie yet, but I’m making an exception  this time since my biggest Star Trek fan friend, Joey, hasn’t seen it yet. So, this one is SPOILER FREE.

I love the Star Trek reboot and actually like them much better than the Abram’s Star Wars movies, but that’s a different review, isn’t it?

star-trek-beyond-sofia-boutellaMy favorite addition to the Star Trek cast is Jaylah. She was fun and badass, she worked well as a contrast to Chris Pine, and I hope she’s back for the next movie, this time with her own captain’s chair (Ahem!)

Speaking of Chris Pine, he did a great job as a  somewhat troubled Captain Kirk, but I can’t say the same for Zachary Quinto as Spock, who seemed not just stoic but bland in this film. I liked him in the first two, but he seemed really quite forgettable in this film, though there were some nice moments with Dr. McCoy.

It feels like Abrams, or perhaps Justin Lin deserves the credit for this, has found the right balance of philosophy with action in this film, and, seriously, I’m going to see this movie again just for the Beastie Boys moment, which was so, so fabulous.

Live long and prosper, J. J. Abrams’s Star Trek movie franchise.

 

The Lobster

The Lobster (2016) is a great film. That being said, I’m not sure I recommend that you go see it. I don’t know who you are, but I know that you very well may leave the theater feeling sad about whoever you came to see the movie with, or if you came by yourself, well, you may leave feeling even more sad. Then again, you may leave feeling joyous, as you are not willing to go to an extreme in order to be with some one and, perhaps, this film confirms that decision for you.

 

We were at the beach (Eww)
Everybody had matching towels (Eww)
Somebody went under a dock (Eww)
And there they saw a rock (Eww)
It wasn’t a rock (Eww)
Was a rock lobster (Eww)

 

So, what makes this film, this sad film, also a great film? In part, it’s the premise — marriage is required in order to be part of society, with no exceptions for widows or recent divorces or broken hearts or even just those ill-suited for pairing. This premise is played out perfectly, with no tongue-in-cheek moments, a perfect, brilliant satire. The casting is also superb, and much has already been made of Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz, deservedly so. The performance that stood out to me was Lea Seydoux playing the Loner Leader… who loves her parents.

The sad part is that the film leaves you with that premise and doesn’t give you an easy out or answer for the relentless coupling that society seems to require of us (I say all of this as a person who is happily married and hoping to remain so). I left the film feeling like coming to the theater with my husband, sharing a cookie with him during the showing, and leaving to have an after-movie chat and beer at the bar/restaurant next door was somehow contributing to the pervasive need for a “soulmate” and feeling a bit uneasy about that.

Star Trek: Into Darkness

Well, I tried so hard to avoid reviews before and after seeing Star Trek: Into Darkness.  I failed. But only a little bit, and since it inspired the format for this review…. well, I guess it is okay.

When the first Abrams’s Star Trek was released, I went to see it as a last minute decision, I think. I’m not a Trekkie (I’ve watched ST on and off through the years, but casually not obsessively),  and therefore didn’t have an entire set of expectations for what the movie was SUPPOSED to be.

I loved it.  From start to finish.  From Pine to Quinto. My only real complaint was that Shatner didn’t get to make a cameo. (Still!  Couldn’t they let him walk by the camera in a red shirt or something?! Come on!)

For this new ST, I once again tried my best to avoid all the hype about the film until now, when I can take a moment to process and review the film on my own.  I wouldn’t even talk to Joey or Brad about it in any depth because I didn’t want their opinions to unduly influence my own.  Plus, they’re both smarter than me, so I didn’t want to feel inadequate.

Then, BLAM! Facebook got me.  A friend posted this as a review of the new movie: “The only thing wrong with Abram’s Star Trek is that it misses the point of Star Trek.”

Now, I feel like I have to figure out what the POINT of Star Trek is.  I don’t know what other folks think the point of the show/movie/book/series/franchise/enterprise (yes! another bad pun. I’ll be here all week, folks.  Don’t forget to tip your bartender) is.

I’ll start with why I like Star Trek: because it’s fun.  Yes, it’s fun.  It presents a series of ideas, situations, and characters that are full of possibilities, and it almost always does so with a sense of joie de vivre and, while being serious in imagining an idyllic future world, there’s always been a bit of a tongue in cheek presentation.

Don’t agree?  Well, explain this:

Okay, so costumes were a little iffy back in the day.  This was before computer graphics.

So, how about this:

There’s no way they had Picard deliberately ordering Earl Grey, hot over and over again as a signifier of the long-lasting influence of the monarchy in England.  Nope, it was just fun.

This new film may not get to whatever other folks think the “point” of Star Trek is, but I thought it was amazing. Literally, “causing great surprise or sudden wonder.” 

From the moment the film started to almost the last minute (the credits at the end made me feel dizzy and headachy, not amazed… and there wasn’t even a sneak peak of more Klingons!), I was continually surprised and in wonder.

What else is the point of Star Trek, according to me, the expert-non-Trekkie?  Characters that are utterly memorable.  I can tell you that from this point forward, Zachary Quinto will always be “that guy who played Spock,” just like Leonard Nimoy (although when he was on screen this time, I thought, WILLIAM BELL!).  And, woah,  Benedict Cumberbatch as Kahn (more later.  And, that guy’s name does not fit his ability to be so so deliciously ruthless.  His name makes me think of the kindly uncle in a Jane Austen book, who always has scones and tea and crumpets).  Chris Pine once again embraced and redefined the role of Kirk, making him a much more nuanced character, without overtelling.

I haven’t read the reviews, but I imagine that what folks don’t like is Kahn.  In the original series, Kahn was a barbarian genius (love that paradox), who was only allowed to live because Kirk was so far advanced that he could admire even Kahn and see how Kahn and his people deserved a chance to live, despite our much less advanced notions that Kahn should be executed. Okay, let me make this simpler:  Kahn = bad, but Kirk = good because he thinks even Kahn=bad should get to live.

In this new Abrams version, Kahn is the one who is more advanced and is maybe even more advanced than Kirk (we don’t know for sure, since Kirk gets put out of commission and it’s Spock who goes after Kahn).  It’s the rogue members of Star Fleet, those who believe in weapons and war, represented by Marcus (Peter Weller!  Robocop!), who is the bad one (okay, Abrams, we get it. Preemptive strikes are bad.  Is this the metaphor for everything in Hollywood now? ) because he (Marcus) manipulates Kahn by holding the people he loves hostage and makes him (Kahn) build weapons so he can kill the Klingons before the Klingons kill the Star Fleet. Kirk recognizes Kahn’s essential goodness, despite his appearance of evil and violence, because Kirk himself knows that he could be pushed to be evil in order to save or avenge his friends.  In this version, we’re not quite sure if Spock is right to almost kill Kahn at the end, but Spock realizes that he too has the human urge to kill.  Wait, human urge to kill?  Is that right?  Yes, the urge to kill is linked with the human urge to love.  We love so much that we’re willing to kill.

So, again, let’s simplify:  Marcus = bad, because he’s killing BEFORE something bad happens and has no regard for innocent lives and chooses war over any sense of empahty.  Got it.  Kahn = good or bad?, but with definite bad tendencies because he’s willing to kill, even innocent people, in order to get back his loved ones, which Kirk realizes is a strong motivator and can drive people to do unthinkable things.  Kirk and Spock = good because they both wait for bad things to happen first, then try to kill.  Okay, that’s a little confusing.

I’m guessing the true Trekkies, who get what Star Trek is really about, don’t like this convoluted message.  It’s much simpler and maybe more admirable in the original versions.  I do like this though, but I think it’s because I’ve always been interested in what makes people evil and how we define that line, that thin, thin line between what is good and what is evil.  Spock’s absolute certainty at the beginning of the film is undermined by the end, when he is willing to kill Kahn until Uhura (Zoe Saldana, who had some really great moments) stops him.  That line, that understanding, is one that we all come to, provided we’re thoughtful people who are willing to question and grow.  A strongly held belief should come under question.  A “what-if” is much different than a “what-is,” and until we’re in that moment, we don’t really know what we’ll do, do we? That’s what Spock learns.

Now, hurry up Abrams. I’m ready for Kahn to come back to life in the next movie!

Random favorite moments:

  • The creatures on the red-tree planet drawing the spaceship.  I totally took that as a nod to Ancient Aliens, the best thing to ever happen to Sci-Fi geeks, who want to pretend aliens are chilling out, waiting on us to smarten up so we can travel around with Ford Prefect.  Thanks, NatGeo!  (This ignores the crazy folks who take the show a little too seriously…)
  • The nods to the original film, like Spock yelling “KAAAAAHHHHHHNNNNN!” and the dialogue between Kirk and Spock as Kirk dies
  • Everything to do with Scotty
  • Dammit, Spock, I’m a doctor, not a torpedo technician
  • Kahn’s complete silence for the first 10 or so minutes he’s on screen
  • Sulu in the captain’s chair (hey, how about George Takei’s cameo!?)
  • People in the theater clapping and talking when certain things happened on screen, like when Kahn was revealed as Kahn (though I had figured that out about 1 minute before the movie made it clear)

Not favorite moment:

The random shot of Carol, the admiral’s daughter (Alice Eve), without her clothes on. I mean, I get it. She’s gorgeous.  But, we know that already.  I mean, she’s the girl who played the girl who is out of the Geek’s league.   The original Star Trek had scantily clad women all over the place.  But, they often made SENSE, in terms of story.  The 5 second shot of her hot bod felt pretty stupid, like they HAD to have a naked girl and Uhura wasn’t having it.  Abrams, tsk, tsk.  Next time, you can at least make having her half naked make sense… since she is going to hook up with Kirk and have his secret baby!

Now, I’m off to read some reviews, finally.  Maybe they’ll tell me what the point of Star Trek really is.