The Geopolitics of Arrival
If there's one thing Eric Heisserer’s Oscar-nominated script gets right, it's our world today.
Eric Heisserer’s Oscar-nominated screenplay for Arrival, on the other hand, aims to merge the timeless with the timely. It retains the core of Chiang’s novella—a universal emotion—and situates it within our universe as it stands today. When we look back at Arrival a few years from now, we’ll remember it as a movie not just from but also of 2016.
It's been months since Arrival was released in theater to commercial and critical acclaim. People found much to love, such as Denis Villeneuve’s direction, Amy Adams’ starring—and starry—performance, and Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score. (If nothing else, Jóhannsson deserves praise for handing over the limelight to Max Richter’s “On the Nature of Daylight” during the film’s most memorable sequences.) The names mentioned above also have been fixtures on the awards circuit. Heisserer’s screenplay has been praised for its inventiveness, commitment to an unlikely protagonist, and emotional punch. However, some criticism has been leveled against the film’s subplots about different governments and their irascibility. The “ticking clock” element added to the narrative has been derided as a Hollywood-ian dumbing down of the clean brilliance of Chiang’s source material.
I’m not an unequivocal fan of Heisserer’s screenplay; it took a lot to swallow the clunky and unprecedented voiceover midway through the film by Jeremy Renner’s supporting character. But if there’s one thing the script gets right in Arrival, it’s this geopolitical framework. I’m here to argue that far from dumbing down the original novella, the situational context added by Heisserer is a worthwhile amplification of it.
112 alien devices descend upon Earth in the novella; the movie trims that down to twelve sleek ships. One lands in the state of Montana in the United States. (The protagonists’ approach to it by helicopter leads to the most famous shot from the film, for which cinematographer Bradford Young, also an Oscar nominee, will be remembered.) Government and military officials already are wary, and trying to assess which might be the bigger threat: the aliens' intentions, or those of their human counterparts in other countries.
Another ship hovers over the water near Shanghai. Throughout Arrival, the Chinese are portrayed as rather belligerent, frequently the focus of much American suspicion. This too has been criticized for its overt sympathizing with the American perspective (and never mind that one poster for the film seemed to confuse Shanghai with Hong Kong), but that critique ignores much of the script’s nuance. During a Chinese news broadcast in the film, an anchor pontificates breathlessly while the news ticker, in simplified Chinese characters, notes the location of the extraterrestrial visitors: the East China Sea. (As an aside, the depiction of broadcast news in Arrival is perfect in its realism; given how often movies mess this up, veering from obvious fakeness to blaring product placement, this is no small achievement.) Even a cursory reading of the news today will make one aware of how contentious China’s waters are. The East China Sea is host to the most rancorous territorial dispute between Japan and the People’s Republic of China, over the custodianship of islands known by the two parties as Senkaku and Diaoyu respectively. The rolling countryside in Montana simply does not compare to an internationally contested geographical feature, and for me this fact alone justifies the disparity in China and America’s responses.
Later in Arrival, while the protagonists make headway with the aliens, governments are falling out with each other. The Americans can rely on the Australians, but only to a point. Meanwhile, the Chinese, Russian, Sudanese, and Pakistani teams seem to echo each other’s decision-making to an annoying extent. Again, the choice of these countries (and their allocations in different camps) is thoroughly researched and in line with reality. All of these additional countries are major economic and political allies of China; they are important stops on the “One Belt, One Road” initiative—a modern reinvention of the Silk Road that is current Chinese President Xi Jinping’s landmark project.
The global power play at the heart of Arrival is so refreshing because of its rarity. The relentless suggestion of China as the Other, the superpower that can sway the balance against the United States, is an acknowledgment of the geopolitical order today. It seems like yesterday that the Red Dawn remake changed, while in post-production, the nationality and insignia of its antagonists from Chinese to North Korean just to retain access to a lucrative box office. Our screens have been flooded in the last few years with big-budget productions that pander to China in increasingly brazen and cringe-inducing ways. Who can unsee (or forget) the Chinese product placement that dominated the frame in Transformers: Age of Extinction? When there are supposedly “organic” co-productions, like Zhang Yimou’s upcoming The Great Wall, they take care to deal only with remote period settings. After all, the past is a quantity that can be molded and romanticized at will.
One can’t lay the blame entirely at the feet of the people behind these blockbusters. Today, the Chinese box office is the second biggest in the world, and will overtake America's within a few years. As final budgets reach astronomical figures like $300 or $400 million, any backer would want to leave no stone unturned in trying to recoup that investment.
Yet if there’s a true loser in this blockbuster arms race it’s the medium-budget drama aimed at adults—the proverbial $40-million film. Too expensive to take a risk on (like a Sundance smash), and too modest to carpet-bomb worldwide with merchandise and tie-ins, this type of film has given us a lot to be grateful for—from beloved cultural icons like The Social Network to ambitious auteur-driven experiments like Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. And it’s the growing paucity of the $40-million film in the cinematic landscape that’s starving us of the fare that Miramax and Focus Features made their legacy out of.
That’s why Arrival is something truly worth cherishing. It’s an R-rated drama that cost $47 million to make and doesn’t soften its screenplay or setting for any international pandering. It so far has grossed more than $150 million worldwide, an undeniable if not rip-roaring success. If it convinces even one backer to put his or her name and money behind a film that examines, warts and all, the world today, then its impact will be amplified.
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