active maas

The blog of thriller writer Robert Maas

Arrive without traveling

Here’s a new one. A giant alien structure hovers mysteriously a short distance off the ground. Two American scientists climb into it via a cherry-picker and meet the inhabitants. The Chinese attack but our heroes manage to defuse the tension and save the day. They end the movie by having a child together.

Okay, it’s not new at all. This is the plot of the 2001 movie Epoch, which I rate highly as a series of ideas but poorly for their execution. It’s one of those movies I declare I really like but never actually enjoy watching. I can’t remember the last time I saw it.

What was great about Epoch was its strangeness. The spaceship (or whatever the thing was supposed to be) was alien-looking, it was set in an exotic location, and once that door opened and you stepped inside the possibilities were endless.

But it wasn’t science fiction. The problem with Epoch was that the artifact magically cured sickness and brought people back from the dead. Since one of the lead characters was shown from the start to be terminally ill, you knew exactly how this would pan out. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, you might have thought, if somebody remade Epoch without all that silly fantasy business?

Well, they did and they didn’t. The IMDB board is full of people who’ve noticed similarities between 2016’s science fiction stick-in-the-sand Arrival and other widescreen SF adventures, in particular Contact and Interstellar, but none of them seem to have noticed Epoch, and most of them seem forgiving of the fact that Arrival is every bit as ludicrous a fantasy as Epoch was.

As I write this, Arrival is notching up nominations for the upcoming Academy awards. It might actually win something, perhaps for the unimaginative sets, or aliens that looked just like those severed hands that cowboys rode in Terry Gilliam’s Monty Python’s Flying Circus animation. Or maybe the Academy will give a nod to Amy Adams, even though she’s quite obviously a cut-price Jody Foster or Nicole Kidman, neither of whom could have starred in the movie since they’d already had alien encounters of their own.

Surely they can’t award it for the direction, which was pedestrian, for the plot, which was largely milled out of movies like Contact, Stargate and The Abyss but drags on for two hours without much happening, for the screenplay, which was unmemorable, or for the underlying ideas, which made no sense at all.

Arrival certainly wasn’t the best genre movie of the year. In my opinion, that prize goes to the zombie attack thriller Train To Busan which was gleefully bonkers but seamed through with the vehement emotions South Korean cinema does so well. It’s the best South Korean horror movie I’ve seen since The Host.

South Korean cinema plays an intriguing game. Think about the 2005 Hollywood version of War Of The Worlds, for example. Hands up if you thought — for even a split second — that Dakota Fanning was going to die. Of course not. Kids don’t die in mainstream Hollywood movies. But they do die in South Korean movies, and as you may remember from The Host, the effect can be draining.

So here’s Train To Busan and (warning: the rest of this paragraph is a spoiler), after the father’s beautifully played goodbye, we’re left with two survivors stumbling toward the trigger-happy military grunts: a little girl and a pregnant woman. Talk about cliché. The movie is daring you to embrace the nihilism. It wants you to feel that these dice are loaded.

Someone’s snickering behind the scenes, but it’s a snicker that would leave a thin-lipped grin on your tear-streaked face regardless of the way that scene played out. I love being in on so delicious a joke.

Compared to this, what does Arrival have to offer? A time travel paradox? No, it pretends such things don’t exist. A convoluted treatise on the nature of free will? Nope, not even that. A movie that blows its own tension out of the water. The aliens know how the story ends so effectively nothing the little ant-like humans do is of the least consequence.

And what’s the sum total of all this? In 3,000 years the aliens will return because they need humanity’s help with something or other that isn’t elaborated upon, even though Adams presumably knows what it is.

They’re here to make us all time travelers, too. In which case, at the moment the movie ends, we all know the future and whatever is supposed to happen in 5016 has already happened. Assuming it’s a war of some kind, I guess we won. Otherwise we’re going to spend those 3,000 years building big guns to blow the aliens out of the sky when they return, but then they would have seen that, too.

Arrival was based on Ted Chiang’s 1998 short story The Story Of Your Life, but Chiang, like the genre he was writing for, didn’t really care much about how plausible the core concept was, as long as it sounded good.

His idea is that if you know the way a sentence ends before you start writing it, you can somehow see the future. Or vice versa. Here in Japan, we always know how every sentence will end before we start writing it (or thinking it!), since Japanese places the verb at the very end. Even in English, I rarely start a sentence without knowing what it’s going to say. My god, it’s just like looking into tomorrow.

To give him his due, Chiang was playing one of those formal quasi-scientific games that SF award bodies like so much. A little skimming along the surface of an idea without worrying too much that it is absurd underneath.

But movie audiences, I like to think, are more discriminating than science fiction fans. They call out genre bullshit when they smell it. I’ve already posted (in last year’s end-of-year rant, In search of science fiction) about how James Bond could never use a time travel device without ridicule and uproar.

If you set up a movie as being “intelligent,” as Arrival does, you’d better make sure it really is. The same problem hamstrung Interstellar in its closing reel, when it suddenly lurched from hard physics into hollow-headed baloney.

I don’t mind time travel. It can be fun when it’s done well. There are some really great Hollywood movies that toy with the idea.

For example, it’s not widely recognized, but Newton in The Man Who Fell To Earth is able to see backwards in time, and maybe even forwards, too, to his own demise. Maybe he always knew his mission was doomed. Maybe the people who sent him to Earth knew it, too. I forgive Nicholas Roeg the lapse, which is irrelevant to the plot of the movie as a whole.

Science fiction is a lousy genre. I’m still not sure how much true SF actually exists — it’s something that I’m working on trying to define. For example, why is telepathy considered science fiction? Why are superheroes considered science fiction? Why are psychic powers considered science fiction?

Take one of the best genre movies ever made, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. I adore that movie. But it’s not SF. In the very last scene it invalidates itself. And once you start carving up SF by tossing out undeniable classics, you risk having very little left to revere.

What is SF? Honestly, I don’t know. I don’t call myself an SF writer for this reason. It’s my way of trying both to separate myself from the worst excesses of the genre, and to prevent myself contaminating the genre any more than it already is.

I’ve certainly written stories about time travel, but I’m not claiming that they’re science fiction. And that’s both problem and answer combined. Science fiction separates out of fantasy only at the point at which you, the consumer, considers that it does. Your SF landscape might look quite different to mine but both of us are welcome to our opinion, and both of us would probably be wrong.


Robert Maas’s novel Hemisphere is available to buy in six installments at Amazon. For details and links, see the Hemisphere page.


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