21 Laps Entertainment 
Directed by Denis Villeneuve 
Screenplay by Eric Heisserer based on Ted Chiang’s novella
Distributed by Paramount Pictures 

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
Produced by Film4 and TriStar Pictures 
Directed by Ang Lee
Screenplay by Jean-Christophe Castelli from Ben Fountain’s novel 
Distributed by Sony Pictures Releasing 

When is the last time you saw a film in which a man politely asks a woman if she would like to make a baby and receives a sweet smile for his answer?  Search as I may, I can’t find a single instance on Rotten Tomatoes, not even in the devil-may-care pre-code 1930’s.  When this question leapt from the soundtrack of the new science-fiction film Arrival, I was, as they say, flabbergasted.  True, I had read this exchange in the novella from which the film has been adapted, but I never expected it to survive the prurient scissors now wielded by Hollywood’s censors, the connection between sex and procreation being so vexed a topic today.  That it did survive is not the least of this film’s considerable charms.

Arrival was adapted from Ted Chiang’s The Story of Your Life, which, on the page, seems as unlikely a candidate for cinematic adaptation as a treatise on Pierre de Fermat’s 17th-century mathematical inquiries.  I mention Fermat pointedly: His speculations, accompanied by diagrams, play a cardinal role in Chiang’s narrative, as do current linguistic theories about the epistemological implications of grammar and syntax.  Alas, Fermat didn’t make the film’s final cut, at least not by name, although a simplified version of one of his insights has.  As for the linguistics, they show up in the person of Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), who holds a doctorate in the field.

While strategically altering some of the text, screenwriter Eric Heisserer and director Denis Villeneuve have honored their intellectually challenging source even at the risk of losing their audience.  The story’s premise is that extraterrestrials have come to Earth in 12 ships, parking themselves at various places around our planet.  Well, not parking exactly.  They hover about 30 feet above the ground.  One is over a Montana valley, and it’s there our story proceeds.  Why have they come?  What is their purpose?  What do they want?  These are the three overlapping questions that the Army, in the person of Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), has on its mind, and Weber is determined to have them answered.  Elsewhere, earthlings are angrily demanding their various governments do something quickly to protect them from . . . well, they know not what.  The film bears a passing resemblance to Robert Wise’s heavily didactic 1951 antiwar movie The Day the Earth Stood Still, which my grammar-school teachers insisted their students see, doubtlessly hoping that we and our parents would take the lesson and give up our sanguine Cold War desire to nuke the Russians.  While Arrival has its moments of didacticism, they’re not laid on with the stolid self-importance that made Wise’s film so doleful an experience.  Chiang’s story, I should also say, doesn’t take this antiwar line at all.  He has bigger fish to fry.  He wants nothing less than to change our epistemology so that we can perceive reality in a new way.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Let’s start with basics.

To address the aliens and get answers to Colonel Weber’s questions, American scientists have been sent to Montana.  Weber has brought Banks and a theoretical physicist, Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), to find ways of communicating with the visitors.  Every 18 hours the aliens slide open a rectangular portal at the base of their vehicle, a 200-foot flattened ovoid with a dark, rugged gray-brown surface of a volcanic stone you might find while walking on a particularly inhospitable beach.  Once inside the ship, the humans walk through a long tunnel, at the end of which is a sort of presentation room equipped with what looks to be a wide window in the shape of a squashed IMAX screen.  Through this window, the earthlings can see the aliens, two 15-foot-high, seven-legged or -tentacled cephalopods—or heptapods, as they come to be known—who emerge and recede into a thick white mist.  Here Louise and Ian begin to attempt the arduous task of talking with them.  I have no idea how one would go about deciphering an extraterrestrial’s language.  But Louise’s methods seem plausible, and that’s all you can ask of a fiction.  Her task is complicated by the fact that the creatures’ aural and written systems of communication are unrelated to one another.  Assuming it to be the informationally richer of two, Louise works on the written system, which comprises inky circles that the creatures spew, much as octopuses emit black clouds when prodded.  The floating circles sport curlicues on their circumferences.  Each is what Louise calls a semagram, a more than usually articulated ideogram.

The heptapods’ language, it turns out, does not have verb tenses as we understand the term.  Furthermore, the meaning of its sentences doesn’t depend on word order.  Their semagrams can be written in any sequence that occurs to them.  What’s more, to compose a sentence requires they know both its beginning and ending simultaneously.  This, Louise begins to realize, is how they think: They don’t apprehend events in a linear cause-and-effect mode, but rather as simultaneities.  Ian’s encounter with the creatures’ physics reinforces this perception.  He finds that the heptapods abide by one of Fermat’s principles, which argues that an action in the world doesn’t follow cause and effect, but purpose.  Chiang’s account puts it this way: For a force to move through space, it must “know” its destination before it begins its movement.  What this implies is that both the heptapods’ language and physics don’t acknowledge time.  There is no beginning or end for them, only the all-at-once totality of events.

When Louise begins to dream in the alien language, she’s beginning to think as a heptapod.  This will come to explain her increasingly insistent visions of her daughter, who died at age 12.  They keep interrupting her thoughts with gathering urgency throughout the story.  At first, you wonder why the loss of her daughter comes into the narrative, but eventually it all makes sense to our linear minds—almost.

If we enjoyed the simultaneity of perception and thought the heptapods possess, we would have understood all from the outset—which, come to think of it, would have undermined the story and our pleasure in following it, whether reading or watching.  It would be unconscionable of me to reveal more here.  So I’ll just recommend you watch Arrival and see if you can arrive at its meaning.  I’m not at all convinced I have.  I will add this, though.  The film, good as it is, founders slightly when it insists on insinuating into Chiang’s story the all-too-familiar trope of 1950’s science fiction: aliens who come to Earth to appeal to our benighted species, telling us to wise up lest we blow ourselves to kingdom come.  Tell that to the Muslims.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk also calls for understanding among people, especially propaganda-befogged stay-at-home Americans and the youngsters they send to the Middle East to ride herd on the votaries of Islam who steadfastly ignore the precepts of their peace-loving religion.  Based on Ben Fountain’s bitterly satiric novel, the movie should have been a corrosive assault on our military adventures in the first two decades of this century.  But it’s only occasionally so.  Although director Ang Lee adheres closely to Fountain’s narrative, transposing pages and pages of its dialogue into his screenplay, he has somehow lost the novel’s flavor.  Why?  It may be a matter of tone, that elusive quality a good writer can convey on the page but even the best of directors often find difficult to translate to the screen.  Fountain is not a great writer, but he knows how to turn phrases and craft scenes so that his material yields its blithering absurdities.  In contrast, Lee, a formidable director in most genres, has scant aptitude for the cankered muse.  Here he’s so flat-footedly obvious that many scenes leave you cringing.  It’s a bit like watching a comedian delivering a failing monologue.  You know you’re expected to laugh at his lines, but you feel so embarrassed for him that the best you can do is smile politely.

Following its source, the film admirably cuts through the blather that became the inane staple of Iraq news reportage in 2003, when so many of our news readers and commentators were rabidly rah-rahing for our troops, and it does a fine job skewering those who used the war to advance their careers.  The elevation of ordinary scared grunts to superwarriors and the incessant talk of weapons of mass destruction were sold to a credulous public eager to hear that America was settling the score for September 11.  At the time, far too few questioned why the Bush administration had chosen to invade Iraq, despite ample evidence that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.  Saddam was a swarthy Arab with a villainous mustache, and that was enough.

The film follows a company of eight soldiers whom the Department of Defense has brought back from Iraq to take an uplifting patriotic victory tour.  As we learn in flashbacks, they’ve survived their first firefight, during which one of them, the eponymous Billy Lynn (British actor Joe Alwyn, giving an excellent performance as a clueless American kid) was filmed rushing into enemy fire to save his wounded lieutenant, killing several Iraqis along the way.  To his mortification, the footage of this moment has become a sensation played endlessly on television and the internet.  A movie agent is pursuing a film deal based on the incident.  To get it made, he’s negotiating to attach Hillary Swank to the project.  The only question is whether she’ll play Billy as a woman or as a man.  Which would be more au courant?

The victory tour terminates with Billy and his comrades being honored at the Dallas Cowboys’ Thanksgiving Day game against a background of garish pyrotechnic hoopla, including a performance by Beyoncé and Destiny’s Child.  The host for this extravaganza is the owner of the Dallas Cowboys, played by Steve Martin, who modulates his self-satisfied smarm routine into a truly sinister portrait of a megalomaniac who has been given the keys to America’s secular kingdom in all its gaudy glory.

Critics have had much to say about the film’s technical advances.  Lee shot it digitally at 120 frames per second (five times the standard rate), and in 3D to boot.  But few moviegoers have seen the 120-fps version.  It was available only in five cities: Manhattan, Hollywood, Taipei, Beijing, and Shanghai.  Those who have seen the technically advanced format give it mixed assessments.  Some have commented that the greatly enhanced clarity achieved at the higher frame rate becomes part of the film’s purpose: It forces us to see the dispiriting reality behind the vulgar hype.  Others have complained that the greater realism is distractingly surreal.  Who’s right?  If and when I put this cinematic marvel to the test of scrutiny, I’ll report my judgment.