Though I have tried not to explicitly regurgitate plot points, there will inevitably be some spoilers in what follows. Don’t read it if you’d like to watch any of the films.
I seldom go to the cinema but, under the pretext of writing a blog post, I decided to splurge all my Ration Book coupons before year end and went three times, in three days, to see three science fiction films. The movies were Arrival, Rogue One and Passengers and this here is my pretext, delivered as promised (to myself).
Arrival tells the story of linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) who is required to communicate with aliens, found in curved spacecrafts suspended mid-air at a dozen locations across the Earth. Physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) is also part of the team that regularly enters the American pod in Montana to ‘converse’ with the extraterrestrials. Surrounded by gung-ho soldiers they consider more alien than the aliens, the two professors form a close bond. Nerrrrds!
As the humans try to interpret the inky circles of the alien language, they also teach English to the newly named ‘heptapods’. Banks’s goal is to figure out why they have visited Earth, a process replicated by nation states around the globe. The differences between translations of the alien symbols (particularly the phrase ‘offer weapon/tool’) soon spark international tensions and the world teeters on the brink of war. Oh no!
Rogue One styles itself as a prequel, set immediately before the first Star Wars film, A New Hope. It is the tale of a group of rebels (Good) trying to steal a set of space-blueprints for a new weapon belonging to the Empire (Bad). Eagle-eyed viewers will recognise Star Wars staple, the Death Star. This is, essentially, the fourth film where rebels try to blow one up. We follow the journey of Jyn (Felicity Jones), daughter of Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelson) aka the science boffin responsible for designing this deadly weapon, as she struggles with her father’s past and throws her lot in with the rebellion.
Passengers has the smallest cast of the three films, despite my next sentence. The spaceship Avalon is transporting five thousand ‘hibernating’ people to a new planet on a journey lasting 120 years. Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) and Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence) are awoken 90 years early and, when not chatting to affable robot barman Arthur (Martin Sheen), they alone must deal with a malfunctioning ship in order to save the entire sleeping cargo. Crumbs!
Like a lot of interesting science fiction, the three films have little to do with aliens (indeed Passengers doesn’t have any). All three play with notions of time, albeit in different ways, and have women in leading roles. They are also all mainstream Hollywood flicks starring big (or soon to be big) names.
Of the three, Arrival tickled me the most. A film more about time rather than action or adventure, it plays heavily on the Sapir-Whorf theory of language relativity. Put simply, Sapir and Whorf contended that the structure and form of our languages influence how we perceive the world and understand time. The non-linear nature of the heptapods’ pictogram language affects, or represents, how they understand their place in history and how they conceptualise time. As she becomes more engrossed in this language, Louise’s own perception of time is altered and the theoretical barriers between past, present and future begin to break down, along with the narrative structure of the plot.
Understandably this takes its toll on Louise but, as she comes to terms with what is happening, she appears to redefine her understanding of agency in life. The tagline on the poster reads ‘Why are they here?’ but the more pertinent question Louise asks is, ‘If you could see your whole life laid out in front of you, would you change things?’.
Passengers is also a film about agency, or lack thereof, but it is not really explored in depth. Both Jim and Aurora have lost control over their own destiny, but one instance is unfortunate and the other deliberate. It seems significant that the former is the fate of the ‘heroically’ cast male and the latter of the non-consensual woman. Disappointingly this is not really acknowledged in the film. The script attempts to make us sympathetic, to set up man’s folly as understandable, almost inevitable, but it feels a little rushed and the Avalon is apparently not a place to explore gender politics. Rather it is a CGI vehicle (quite literally) for two red-hot talents in the ascendency. The trailer was a little disingenuous, in particular the line “there’s a reason we woke up early”. This was not the mystery/thriller nod to Alien I thought it would be.
The whole sorry mess (or ‘murder’ to use Aurora’s analysis) is swept under the carpet just in time for a happy ending, as the good-looking pair fall in love again after some light peril. It’s a popcorn flick and not intended as a cerebral slice of social commentary, fair enough, but the moral of the story could be: male stalker wins the day. The woman’s options seem more limited, settling for the man or hurling herself into the cold vacuum of space. Hmmm. It’s a toughy. Luckily Pratt has a smoking hot bod and loveable charm. Right?
The one takeaway from Passengers (aside from the fact that, newsflash, you’d get lonely if you had to spend 90 years on your tod in the vast expanse of the cosmos) was Arthur’s cheery advice: ‘Take a break from worrying about what you can’t control — live a little!’ A new year’s rezzie for us all perhaps.
Rogue One also centres around control. The Empire (Bad, remember?) seeks to bring control to all corners of the galaxy, its jackbooted British officers sternly preparing to use their new weapon as a deterrent: stop being pesky rebels or we’ll jolly well vaporise your poxy planet. You get the idea. Space engineer Erso (Good…?) feels unable to exert any control in his life. Having once turned his back on the lucrative imperial paycheck, he is bullied back into building the bloody big death ray lest the British space Nazis hurt his wife and kid. Thus he expresses himself in the only way he can, by building an Achilles heel into the heart of the space station. It is a flaw so perfect for the subsequent story of A New Hope that it caused Star Wars dorks to dub it ‘the worst plot hole in movie history’, necessitating this whole passionless film to rectify it (Bad).
As the latest instalment of the Star Wars saga, and up against the grotesque Jabba-like masses of hard-to-please ‘fandom’, Rogue One was perhaps doomed to be muddled from the get go. Almost certainly designed by committee, it heaves under the weight of trying to please everyone, both the ardent Starwarsian (? I’m not going to look it up) and the passing punter. Of course Disney and Hollywood are to be acknowledged for trying to make cinema more diverse and less dick-swingly hetro-male white, albeit a trillion light years too late. Needless to say, the fact that far right groups (Bad) have deemed Rogue One a threat to ‘white men’ is hilarious and should be worn as a badge of honour on the billboard.
OK yes, in the first twenty minutes we see a bajillion unnecessary planets requiring explanatory text, it’s about 45 minutes too long (as are all films) and the bits when ships shoot each other in space are endless and tiresome. But these are my standard criticisms of all films. Yes, ALL FILMS. You would also have to be a bit po-faced not to marvel at the way they brought actors back to life and neatly segue into the original film. It’s clever and it knows it.
The characters are a little one dimensional and Jyn (the only one whose name I remembered because I thought they were calling her Jen, the name of my sister) is positively disinterested in the rebellion until two-thirds into the film when, inexplicably, she is suddenly slightly bothered about the whole business. Stories abound that the producers chose to round off her edges after test audiences baulked at the idea of a female Han Solo, or depending on who you listen to, a woman protagonist forced to ape ‘traditional’ ‘male’ characteristics. Either way, it felt like the gutsy Empire-bashing rebel-with-a-cause heroine of the trailer was AWOL in the film proper. Perhaps the producers were trying to stay true to the spirit of the saga, in which the robots are the most likeable characters. The straight-talking K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) steals the show more easily than his rebel bosses manage to pinch that floppy disc.
In its defence, Rogue One shines a light on the unsung heroes of rebellions. The men and women who lay down their lives dutifully performing small tasks with large consequences: pulling switches, connecting communication lines, holding a beach, pilfering plans; all so that wisecracking princesses, holier-than-thou clumsy sword-wielding farm boys and selfish smugglers can bag all the glory.
On the subject of character, the other films are not without fault. In Passengers, the protagonists are flat and lifeless, unforgivable when we are expected to spend two hours alone with them in the soulless husk of the Avalon. The charisma, chemistry and humour between Lawrence and Pratt in the accompanying press junket totally overshadowed their onscreen romance. In Arrival, Ian Donnelly feels like little more than a foil on which to hang Banks’s big ‘reveal’ in the final act. No biggie I suppose and, while there may be more meat on his bones in the book, the film isn’t really about him and its fair that he plays second fiddle to Adams’s compelling character.
So what have I learned from all this? Modern mainstream sci-fi films can appeal to language nerds as much as wookie geeks. Arrival is curious and quietly powerful. Rogue One is a fun romp as long as you don’t actually care about this stuff (it must be tough being a hardcore fan). Passengers was a bit disappointing and fluffier than I expected, taking every opportunity to put Lawrence in her pants.
Above all I’ve learned that trailers these days are a bit misleading. On the plus side, I’ve discovered that watching films on your own in an empty cinema is quite enjoyable. Live long and prosper, space cowboys!