Warning: Spoilers for both films are below. Read at your own risk!
I spent back-to-back Sundays seeing highly anticipated and regarded films: Arrival & La La Land (in that order). I had very different reactions to both, but found underlying connections that felt both very timely and very beautiful.
I loved La La Land. Emma Stone can charm the pants off of anyone and anything. As my dear friend Morgan noted, only she could have done that role. Anyone else and Mia becomes annoying, unlikable, and when I brought up the dreaded “What if Jennifer Lawrence had been cast in that role?” Morgan shuddered – thank god that did NOT happen. Ryan Gosling reminded everyone why we were obsessed with him a decade ago and the stars’ imperfect singing & dancing only contributed to that “gahhhh” feeling I got while watching them. They were endearing, not perfect. The film was whimsical, fun, enjoyable, and yes, entirely unrealistic.
It was also an homage to classical musicals of the Golden Age of Hollywood. As a fan of such films, I was thoroughly engrossed with all of the obvious and not-so-obvious hat tips to those magnificent pieces of cinema – from Mia holding the balloons in Paris in the Epilogue (*wink* Funny Face), to Seb swinging on a light pole (*blatant wink* Singin’ in the Rain), to Mia & Seb walking to the car singing & dancing about how they don’t like each other very much (*HELLO Fred & Ginger* Swing Time), to the delectable use of color that would make Vincente Minnelli so very proud. The beauty of these musicals and the sentiment they evoked was one of escapism. They are supposed to be unrealistic. They are supposed to make you feel like you’re in a world where lovers can levitate and dance in the stars of a planetarium or where people break out into song at any moment.
Damien Chazelle’s script and direction intended to invoke that feeling – whimsicality via musicality in a world of unreality. I really loved this movie, but there was one thing that was so very very clear: La La Land was made in a pre-Trump world. It was hard to feel as happy or as hopeful or as dream-filled as the film wanted me to. As I walked away from the theater, I actually felt an overwhelming sense of sadness. I had escaped for 2 short hours, but now I was back in the drudge of the real world. La La Land left me with a deep sense of satisfaction, but also a hollow of despair; there was no hope, no dreams, only crushing reality.
I couldn’t help but compare my rollercoatser of emotions after La La Land to what I was feeling/thinking exactly one week prior, after having just seen Arrival. Musicals and science fiction are hardly the same thing, but the genres both place them out of “reality.” They were both unique concept films, not sequels, not taken from a TV series, Broadway musical, comic book franchise, although Arrival was an adapted screenplay from a short story published in the early 2000s. Both had “happy” endings, even if the lead romance does not survive. But while La La Land felt like a movie made to escape the hell hole that was 2016, Arrival was seemingly tailor-made to wake up a 2016 audience. And instead of walking away feeling depressed about reality, I left Arrival thinking that maybe one day, maybe even soon, all will be ok.
Maybe it was the kick-ass female lead. No one questioned whether she was the best in her field – Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams was so fantastic in this role I won’t even begin to touch the magnificence of that performance here) was the first person the US Gov’t came looking for when they needed the world’s top linguist. Her team revered her, the Heptapods respected her, and even Jeremy Renner was like, “yeah, she’s pretty effing good at her job” (I must’ve said at least 10x that one of my favorite aspects of this film was how irrelevant Jeremy Renner is). Oh, and also, she SAVES THE EFFING WORLD. After having just watched the most sexist election of my lifetime, and coming to the utterly depressing reality that this country isn’t ready to elect a female president because “there’s just something about her” – yeah, it’s called a uterus – watching a woman be put in charge, no questions asked, was so satisfying.
Maybe it was the whole “world coming together” thing. In this futuristic existence, with the world on the brink of an all-out nuclear war and xenophobia at its height, a brilliant, respected woman swoops in, understands the bigger picture (literally), and forces humanity to give itself another go round (while also collaborating with China). It was so blatant of an allegory that there was a brief moment where I had to remind myself that the film and the story it was based on were written years ago. But maybe it’s not so futuristic after all? Arrival didn’t allow me to escape 2016, instead it showed me what’s coming next.
The classic musicals of the Golden Age of Hollywood were used as escapism for those suffering through World Wars, Great Depressions, and the like. Much like those films it’s based on, La La Land provided a political and reality distraction, a vision of the world that does not exist and could not exist, but allows us to forget our woes and worries for a few short hours. Arrival gave me hope, even if it came in the form of an alien invasion movie focused on the power of language, time, and communication. The opposite of to Arrive is to Escape. While I don’t think these two films are opposite, their differences are both necessary and beautiful. And yet, both films reminded me of the power of cinema and the somewhat isolation of idealism in movies today. It’s ok to bring positive stories to the screen –some might be escapist and others might invoke hope – but La La Land and Arrival proved that quality cinema can be found even in the depths of optimism.