Abbot and Costello Go To Earth


ARRIVAL is a thing of beauty. If you’re in need of a shot of hope, a movie that acknowledge’s humanity’s gross collective stupidity while holding out some possibility for improvement, it may do you some good.

Dennis Villeneuve makes beautiful images, perhaps tending to exploit shallow focus a little TOO much, but in doing so he uses it in unexpected ways, sometimes throwing the whole subject of the shot into an artful blur. Tricks with gravity also allow images to be inverted or tilted ninety degrees, calling to mind the “familiar object photographed from an unusual angle” round of questions from Ask the Family. Add smoke and other atmospheric effects, and a lot of discordant yet eerily beautiful music — including the de rigeur terror honks heard in nearly every large-scale sci-fi/psychological horror film in recent years. (I think David Lynch may have invented the terror honk as a film music device, in WILD AT HEART. Would be interested in earlier examples.)


We know how good Amy Adams is. Here she seizes the opportunity of playing a character freaked out and terrified for the whole movie. While Sandra Bullock in GRAVITY is specifically frightened of the exact situations she’s faced with (already nervous about being in space, she has to face cosmic debris, oxygen starvation, the absence of George Clooney), Adams seems generally nervous and lacking in confidence. Part of the job of a good dramatic screenwriter is to use situations to test character — so it’s often a good idea to put the worst possible character in the situation, forcing them to tackle their weaknesses and uncover their strengths. Or you can find the worst possible situation for an otherwise capable character, as with Indiana Jones and his fear of snakes. It gets more subtle when the lines are blurred ~


Adams plays a linguist called in to help translate the speech of a race of visiting aliens, the heptapods (we meet two, nicknamed Abbot & Costello). She’s an awesomely skilled linguist, faced with a problem nobody has ever had to tackle before. The aliens have two distinct languages, one for speech (various echoing rumbles and clicks and digitial didgeridoo drones) and one for writing (forms resembling a cross between a Rorschach test and a coffee cup stain). She also has to deal with politicians and the military, who don’t understand the task she has been set, or anything else, really. One can imagine her role played with a lot of acidity and aggression, because she has to deal with fools, and at times it’s even written that way, but by playing this woman as a character for whom that doesn’t come easily, Adams raises the stakes and makes everything more interesting. That’s what you want from an actor.

Also Jeremy Renner and Forrest Whitaker, very good.


Abbot and Costello are admirable too. Convincingly alien and strange, combining qualities of squids and hands, they are never not alarming. I wasn’t so keen on the spaceships — they are unusual and odd, and reveal different qualities from different angles, but are somehow not awe-inspiring. It’s a difficult brief. The huge craft of INDEPENDENCE DAY were impressive (in a terrible film) because they filled the sky. These long, bean-like things, which turn out to be scooped almost hollow at the back, don’t have any menacing weight. Their defiance of gravity puts me in mind of Magritte’s wondrous painting The Castle of the Pyrenees, but they’re not bulky enough so they crucially lack the sense of heft defied.

Is this a golden age of science fiction dawning? This one is clever. It feels very rewatchable, too. See it big.



17 Responses to “Abbot and Costello Go To Earth”

  1. Surely there are some terror honks in Close Encounters? Honking makes me think of Klingons, but I’m not enough of a Star Trek person to say which of the movies this might have happened in. Possibly ST: The Motion Picture.

  2. Matt Lloyd Says:

    There were terror honks in Rosemary’s Baby fo sure. Tremolo terror honks.

  3. I suppose Harpo honks usually signify something other than terror, except perhaps for the woman pursued.

  4. Ha!

    OK, I think Close Encounters might be a winner. The tremolo of Rosemary’s Baby makes it a different effect, to my ear, though certainly related. The really bassy honking, which is just one or two merged notes, probably has something to do with CE3K. Although a lot of that is diegetic, so it’s a different kind of thing.

    Lynch’s is a bit more musical. Someone should revisit it, because the modern honking thing is getting a bit familiar.

  5. I saw and loved this last night. The shallow focus annoyed me from time to time, but maybe if I hadn’t been (vaguely) aware of the notion of deep focus, it wouldn’t have? Because I wouldn’t have been aware of it as a device.

    I was a linguistics student way back when, and never expected to hear the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis referenced in a major motion picture. There was nonsense at the very beginning: the government comes to this particular linguist because she did such a great job translating Farsi. No one else was able to crack that mumbo-jumbo, certainly none of the hundreds of thousands of Iranian-born Americans — now see what you can do with these alien honks. OTOH, what she was facing with the heptapods really was a task for a field linguist; not translation, but finding patterns in what is initially a flow of undifferentiated sound. But in this case, without the help of any known universals.

    Finally: since very breath we take now stinks of Trump, and I’m pretty sure the packed theater was full of people seeking Trump relief — I have to say that it’s hard to find. This movie, as I think is common in modern sci-fi, shows governments and the military as clumsy and dim and always skirting disaster — yet there is a basic level of competence as well. When movie-news says that the President has declared a state of emergency, I couldn’t help but think that we’ll soon have a president who might call a state of emergency because someone snarked at him on twitter, but who has already welcomed Russian government hacking and asked for more. And when aliens do arrive, he’ll be schtupping a teenager in Trump Tower while his aides blame Obama for not building a galactic wall.

  6. Probably audiences will be aware of the shallow focus as a device, just because it so little resembles the way we see the world. But it’s not a BAD device.

    Maybe the dumb business with the Farsi could have a less dumb explanation: she did some Farsi work, which got her security clearance, but she also has some other experience they’re aware of?

    Interesting times. Trump will be held back somewhat by more level heads – but whether this is remotely enough? And his mere presence in the White House must be an inspiration to bigots everywhere.

  7. I just saw this today with my wife. I am a college biology professor, and I found it cerebral and absorbing. It wasn’t until it was over that I realized it contained very little in the way of action sequences.

  8. I guess Villeneuve had gotten all that out of his system with Sicario, which we watched last night.

  9. I have a very clear understanding of my own reasons for disliking ARRIVAL, but it don’t think it useful to share them. Although I will say that I immediately went out and bought Ted Chiang’s story collection containing the ARRIVAL source story “Story of your Life”.

    Well actually, I will share my feelings.

    At my age, I am sick to fucking death of default heteronormativity – any narrative which begins and ends with (I quote from Chiang’s original) “These questions are in my mind when your father asks me ‘Do you want to make a baby?’ And I smile and answer, ‘Yes’ and I unwrap his arms from around me, and we hold hands as we walk inside to make love, to make you.” has a quite grim and unpleasant effect on me, partly because in the United States right now forces are rallying which seek to repeal my legal protections not to mention my very marriage. As do forces seeking to deny women the choice to *not* make babies, and to intervene if a unwanted pregnancy is underway (ARRIVAL is, in its subtle way, a sneakily anti-choice movie.) As Katya says above, so astutely, the urban American atmosphere is toxic with Trump, and I am acutely aware of the danger my LGBTQ community is in, and having to watch Adams as Louise Banks chirpily deciding to drop a sprog when she feels like it, however fraught we know that sprog’s destiny will be, just burns my cookies. I have become, one might say, Militant Again.
    And there are more urgent issues than what endearing heptapods may require of us 3000 years hence.

    Amy Adams is a great deal more affecting in Tom Ford’s NOCTURNAL ANIMALS, a divisive movie for these divisive and divided times. At the Hollywood DGA screening last night, half the house booed at the final frame, the other half (including me and the husband) cheered and Bravo’d our socks off (even if Ford brings talk of a gay male character into the dialogue, but disappointingly he remains just talk.)

    The other night I finally caught up with Stephan Lacant’s superb FREE FALL, and for 90 minutes felt at last that I was understood, that the hate directed at my community was acknowledged, and that there are more important relationships than those involving breeding at all costs. But then, I’m a bitter old curmudgeon these days.

  10. I can see your points. Of course, practically everything produced by Hollywood is prfoundly (or shallowly) heteronormative.

    As a cheerful childless, I’m not icked out by pro-procreation stories, and saw the film as pro-choice since the character actually talks about the choice she made. Of course, characters who make the opposite choice are also severly undre-represented…

  11. SPOILERS * SPOILERS* SPOILERS* I’m not trying to be funny, but isn’t it actually an anti-choice film in a totally different way from the abortion sense of the word? I mean, the universe it posits is one in which past, future and present coexist, with the aliens as, essentially, Tralfamadorians. Amy Adams, when she gains the ability to see time as they do, is therefore totally without choice. She knows she’s going to have a daughter — she has no choice at all, since it’s already happened. Slaughterhouse 5, obviously, does a great job of exploring the same idea, but I’m halfway through my second reading of Alan Moore’s Jerusalem, which is also about what life is like in that kind of universe. Have you read it yet? The chapter “Do As You Darn Well Pleasey” is a wonderful meditation on what it would be like to be fully aware of the past and future of everything around you. Arrival’s take on the dramatic possibilities of the idea was excellent, I thought.

  12. I have not yet read the Moore magnum magnum opus. Arrival seems to insist that there IS choice – or at any rate it avoids saying there isn’t (“He thought I made the wrong choice.”) but the story doesn’t allow it to test this (as The Dead Zone does).

  13. […] enjoyed ARRIVAL, we went back in time and watched director Denis Villeneuve’s previous hit. SICARIO. […]

  14. I’ve just seen this and adored it. Regarding Diarmid’s point, obviously it’s completely paradoxical, but in the rapid unpacking one has to do at the end I personally still read it as a choice. Had Amy Adams not chosen to have Hannah, the future she saw would have been different. This makes no sense of course, other than emotionally, but does seem to be the crux of why he left – she specifically says he accuses her of making the wrong choice. The past is also written, but we still chose it. Weirdly I don’t remember the honks, maybe I’ve become inured to them. I remember horns but they seemed sounded more in prayer than alarm. Hallelujah, Amy Adams.

  15. Glad you dug it. I guess you can read it that everything is predetermined, but the sense the film evokes for me is that AA still had to bustle in order to get all the pieces to connect in order to get the best available outcome with the panicking world leaders. No idea how that really works, but it just about holds up as far as this one story is concerned.

  16. One of the less abysmally depressing thoughts I had after the election was whether we’d start seeing aliens in films trying to save us once again, rather than just destroy us. I liked that the ships weren’t menacing, that they seemed in fact to be doing their best not to be menacing. As well as Magritte I was reminded somehow of Tove Jansson. It’s not easy making something that massive look like it’s sidled up.

  17. […] David Bordwell on an aspect that I don’t feel able to name before you’ve seen the film David Cairns at Shadowplay Margaret Rhodes on how the filmmakers designed the alien […]

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