July 20, 2017
On Arrival and the Diminishing of Milestones
I haven’t seen E.T. the Extra Terrestrial for quite a long time, and every time I think about watching it, I just can’t bring myself to do it. Sure, I liked the film when I saw it, but as time passed, I grew less fond of it. In my mind, the film became for children. And it was not just E.T. that underwent this change. I would have an equally difficult time sitting down to watch other films I previously enjoyed a great deal, in particular, films like Explorers, Starman, and Contact.
What all of these films have in common is that they take an event that would alter civilization’s perceptions of itself and life as a whole - the discovery of life in outer space - and reduce it to an experience felt and understood only by a select few people. For example, E.T. and Explorers make mankind’s first encounter with aliens just another part of the maturation process of young children. In Starman, the impact of the alien’s arrival is felt mainly by two people, a kind scientist who puts the alien’s health ahead of his quest for knowledge and the woman whose form the alien takes. In fact, the film dismisses all of the questions that such an event would create by saying that the scientist – and by extension the audience – would not understand the answers. How convenient. In the case of Contact, a film whose ending is often misunderstood and wrongly criticized, alien life seems to exist only to help a young scientist cope with her longstanding father issues.
Compare the scopes of these films to those of other ones. In The Terminator, it is the destruction of mankind that must be prevented; The Day the Earth Stood Still contains a message for humanity about the dangers of nuclear weapons; and the treatment of the aliens in District 9 is a metaphor for the world’s often horrendous treatment of refugees. Even in things as silly as the Transformers and Independence Day films, the stakes are universal, not individual.
I believe that that when we are young, our views are narrower. We know less about the cultures and history of other countries, we see certain emotional issues through the eyes of the people who talked to us about them in our youth, and we are more focused on our immediate world – our friends, our cars, our relationships, our dreams. This changes as we get older. We gain perspective, an awareness not only that our actions have consequences but that there is a greater purpose than self-fulfillment. It is in adulthood that we truly understand the sentiments behind the oft-quoted lines from Star Trek, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one.”
And this brings me to Arrival, a movie that chugs along nicely for about an hour and a half and then abruptly runs in a wall of incongruity. For most of the film, we watch as two characters that represent the best of humanity work feverishly to make sense of an alien arrival that has the potential to bring out the worst in us. In a surprising scene, we learn the purpose of the aliens’ visit, and, while it is a bit simplistic, it makes complete sense and shows the interconnectedness of all of the inhabitants of the universe. And then it doesn’t. If I understand the ending correctly, the second realization in the film, that time can be bent, has no value for the world as a whole. It isn’t to be used to prevent wars or mass genocides, and its potential to prevent famine and mass casualties due to flooding or fire is insignificant. No, if Arrival is to be believed, the ability to know the future serves only to enable Amy Adams’s character to make a decision about whether to have a baby that she knows will not live to be an adult. Personally if I knew that my newborn baby was going to develop a lethal disease, I would become an expert in diseases and work as hard as I could to find a cure. Adams’ character just passively accepts it, an act of non-action that does not gel with her character by the end of the film. Worse than this, it puts the emphasis squarely on her, as if the alien arrival had occurred solely so that she could make a personal decision. Its implications for humanity are seemingly secondary, and this left a sour taste in my mouth.
How else could Arrival have ended? I’m not sure. By then, the film had boxed itself into a corner. After all, you can’t have a world in which everyone has the ability to see and change the future. If you did, you’d have a film that could almost act as a prequel to Timecop. But if an event as monumental as the first contact is only of consequence to one person, then that event is diminished in both importance and consequence. It is cute instead of substantial, personal instead of global. In other words, it is of import to the few and inconsequential to the many. As adults, we’re supposed to know better than this.