Friday, October 07, 2016

looking forward to "Arrival"

There's a new alien-visitation movie on the horizon: "Arrival," starring Amy Adams, Forest Whitaker, and Jeremy Renner. You can watch previews of it here (domestic version) and here (international version). This film caught my eye because it seems to put unusual stress on the role of linguists in a first-contact situation. That's a clever side-stepping of the contention popularized by Carl Sagan, who claimed that mathematics is the universal language, and that, if we were ever to communicate with aliens, it would likely be via math, at least at first.*

The aliens in "Arrival" don't reveal themselves fully—at least, not in the previews. What little we see suggests something utterly inhuman: no large-eyed, big-headed "gray men" here. Instead, it's tentacles (which is pretty much how I and HG Wells imagine our critters), and the written language of the aliens appears to be splattery, smoky circles by way of Jackson Pollock, Tommy Chong, and Gandalf the Grey. Otherwise, everything else seems to follow a Roland Emmerich-ish template: multiple giant spaceships arrive and plant themselves at population-dense** points all over the planet, and humanity braces itself for either a massive attack or a massive orgy. The aliens' ships look like a combination of professional-grade chocolate discs and suppositories for God's anus, and the eerie musical score playing in the background of the domestic preview sounds like a Tibetan alpenhorn after you grab its balls and squeeze painfully. The Gestalt effect is delightfully, tantalizingly off-kilter.

I fervently hope this film is as imaginative as its preview makes it out to be. For the moment, at least, I'm hooked and very much looking forward to seeing this. My fear is that, with the focus being on an American crew (as most big-budget space adventures are), the film will give short shrift to other teams of humans, from other nations, who would naturally be making their own efforts at communicating with these visitors from afar. My fingers are crossed in the hopes that "Arrival" will be smarter than that. Sure—focus on the American crew if you must; it's an American movie, after all. But be sharp enough to keep in mind that global crises require a team effort.

*In Sagan's novel Contact, and in the filmic adaptation of Sagan's story, humanity picks up a signal that it knows not to be random noise because it's a string of prime numbers. This eventually leads to the discovery of a mathematical primer that helps humanity decode a message—a "palimpsest"—that has been piggybacked onto a re-broadcast of Earth's first-ever broadcast into space: Hitler's speech at the 1936 Olympics.

Humanity discovers that the palimpsest is actually a set of plans to build a device that will send humans through wormholes to where the aliens presumably are. Math informs most of this fascinating adventure (I enjoyed Sagan's novel). I should note, though, that Jeremy Renner's character in "Arrival" is a mathematician, so the ghost of Sagan might still be haunting and informing this new film.

**Some quick scenes in the preview trailers show alien spacecraft parked over fairly remote areas, so it could be that the sites have some occult significance for the aliens.

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