Pensive Prowler #1 by Dmetri Kakmi
Departing from Arrival
After watching Arrival, Dennis Villeneuve’s new sci-fi outing, my friend Cam and I wandered to an upscale pizza joint in Melbourne to propitiate the mother of tears with melted cheese and red wine. We were deeply affected by the film. Yet something about the narrative niggled and I couldn’t put my finger on what it was. It came to me, as these things often do, while basil-infused grease and a fulsome South Australian Shiraz lubricated my thoughts and throat.
Let’s be upfront. There’s a lot to like about Arrival — who wouldn’t enjoy a movie in which Cthulhu descends to earth in a giant spaceship to dispense good will to the tune of composer Johann Johannsson’s hypnotic bleeps and throbs? I was in heaven from start to finish.
Even so, I was bothered by the film’s narrow politics.
You see in the film’s troubling schema America is the good guy. China and Russia are the bad guys. The U.S. intervenes in the form of softly-spoken Amy Adams to avert disaster; and, through a largely intuitive process, she breaks the code for the aliens’ written language, which is a logogram.
Up pops problem number one. I don’t mean to insult American friends, but America is not exactly known for docility. It is an aggressive, forthright nation. Since the end of World War II, the U.S. has waged war across the globe and continues to do so to this day.
Given these undeniable facts, it makes sense that America would not be happy when aliens that resemble dried-up octopuses in a Greek restaurant drop into its backyard. They’d want a barbecue and who can blame them? Even I was tempted to start heating the charcoal grill. America’s love of the gun also attests to such a response.
But no, in Arrival, American might strangely opts for conciliation. While China, the current red under the bed, errs on the side of hostility towards the hectapods, as they’re called.
That doesn’t make sense. Despite media efforts to paint China as the new bogeyman, the country does not have a modern history of open hostility towards other nations. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, Chinese aggression has been largely confined to internal and border skirmishes. The United States on the other hand extends its influence far and wide.
China’s conception of the world differs from America’s. The country’s three major religions — Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism — are harmonious, syncretic teachings that offer a broad humane philosophic outlook that stresses the interdependence between all things. A country that has that outlook on life would be benevolent to the aliens. It would not come out shooting.
Buddhism also holds a non-linear conception of time. This is important because Arrival is all about time. The heptapod message to humanity is that there is no time. There is no past, present or future. There is only a universal now. All experience exists in the present moment, like a compressed capsule. An individual’s place in that circle depends on perspective and shifts in perception and consciousness, a vital component to understanding the film’s central dilemma.
Problem number two emerged when the heptapods first display their eerily beautiful, circular form of writing. They squirt it like squid ink on a barrier between themselves and the humans. As I say, this form of writing is called a logogram. A logogram is a written character that represents a word or a phrase. Egyptian hieroglyphs are early logograms. Chinese and Japanese characters are modern equivalents.
As an aside (and to show you I wasn’t merely being flip when I evoked Lovecraft earlier), R’lyehian, the language spoken by Cthulhu’s spawn in R’lyeh, is also a hieroglyphic lettering system. So who knows? Maybe Villeneuve’s heptapods are Lovecraft’s Ancient Ones come back? And maybe Arrival is the most intelligent film set in Lovecraft’s complex universe?
Where am I going with all this, I hear you say? I’ve avoided saying it for a long time, hoping you might catch on. But I can tell from the blank expression on your face that you won’t. So I’m going to say it aloud.
If we follow the film’s logic, it makes sense for the protagonist to be Chinese, instead of Caucasian. With her knowledge of Chinese characters and immersion in eastern philosophies, a Chinese linguist is better placed to engage with the aliens’ mindset and to crack their code than an American raised under the strict linear dictates of competitive capitalism and hierarchical monotheism.
Much as I enjoyed Arrival, I would have been happier if the film was set in China; and if Villeneuve had cast Gong Li or Michelle Yeow, let’s say, in the primary role. That’s not to say Amy Adams does not disport herself admirably. Her performance is perfectly pitched. Nevertheless, placing a Chinese woman at the centre of the narrative and forging an alliance between Russia and America to combat a perceived threat might have made for a more unexpected and surprising cinematic outing.
Casting a Chinese actor in a central role also acts as an indicator that intelligence, heroics and grand narratives are not the exclusive preserve of white people. A worthy message in these fearful times.
Dmetri Kakmi (Episode 158) is a writer and editor based in Melbourne, Australia. The memoir Mother Land was shortlisted for the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards in Australia; and is published in England and Turkey. His essays and short stories appear in anthologies and journals. You can find out more about him here.