Sometimes going to the movies can be a spiritual experience. And though my statement sounds hyperbolic, it’s sincere. Seldom does a director create a masterpiece that truly demonstrates the medium’s potential to transcend film itself. The paradox is that while most filmmakers try to immerse us into their film in order that we escape into its world, some decide to remind us that we’re watching a movie, believing that it is in this self-awareness, when we realize the true power of film. My next subject of analysis–the transcendental power of language–is inspired by the latest science fiction drama, Arrival.
French Canadian director, Denis Villeneuve’s latest movie is what I would call a subversive sci-fi or “anti-epic” that seeks less to entertain, than it does to make one think and feel deeply. And though many science-fiction films challenge us to imagine all sorts of interesting, relevant and plausible “what if’s,” Villeneuve’s subdued, minimalist, and lyrical style demonstrates an expertise with the medium of film that’s quite unique in today’s blockbuster-driven, sensory-overloaded spectacles. While Christopher Nolan and Ridley Scott may create high-concept action films that seek to entertain both the eyes and the mind, it seems that Villeneuve leans toward the Malick school of film that seeks to stimulate the mind through the eyes.
Villeneuve is concerned with language, including the language of film, and instead of creating an epic spectacle that merely stimulates, he takes profound themes and explores them with nuance, subtext and understatement, transcending the trappings and tropes of the conventional epic-sci-fi, creating something beyond simple human (linear) language.
For example, while special effects and expositional dialogue often dominate the heady science-fiction genre, he never sacrifices art for entertainment or clarity, and instead focuses on tone and mood, narrative and metaphor, in order to create the best circumstances for us to delve deep into our own world, while visiting his. It’s clear that Villeneuve wants the viewer to witness the power of film as a visual medium first and foremost to showcase the potential of film as a vehicle for transcendence, not mere escapism.
The science-fiction drama, which premiered a few days after the 2016 US presidential election, seems most appropriate for the crossroads we now stand upon, not as a source of distraction from the anxiety and fear felt across the country, but as an exploration of the transcendental power of language, a power we’ve collectively forgotten at a time where we need it most. While the movie starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forrest Whittaker is marketed as the next big science-fiction film of the decade, it’s less concerned with imagining advanced technology, intergalactic warfare, or mind-bending physics, and more interested in less cinematic topics like linguistics, syntax, orthography and morphology. Instead of focusing on cliché themes like man’s ability to overcome diversity through unity or how to survive the impending apocalypse, a la Independence Day or Prometheus, it concerns itself primarily with the human desire for transcendence, while at the same time acknowledging the shortcomings and failures of our species. In short, the film explores the nature of language, its limits, and its potential to save humanity. But to truly understand this important film, one must attempt to wrap their head around the idea of linear vs. non-linear language, a concept that much of the film’s plot and meaning relies on. In Part II, “How Language can Save the World – Exploring the Limits and Potential of Language in Arrival” I elaborate on the transcendental power of language. If you’re interested in reading a more in depth analysis focusing on specific plot details, explanations and interpretations, please check it out!