Overview: When twelve alien spacecrafts touch down on Earth, a linguist, a theoretical physicist, and an army colonel try to uncover their purpose. Based on Ted Chiang’s short story “Story of Your Life.” Paramount Pictures; 2016; Rated PG-13; 116 minutes.
Days of Sorrow: Almost as if director Denis Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer could, like the aliens in this film, experience time both backwards and forwards, Arrival could not have been released at a better moment. In the opening minutes of the film we are given an experience of loss, as Max Richter’s “On the Nature of Daylight” punctuates unavoidable tragedy with a melody of hope. We watch Dr. Louise Banks’ (Amy Adams) memories of her daughter from infancy to her young and unexpected death. This prologue situates us within the film’s tone, one of unyielding sadness and a strange hope that seems almost out of reach but is present nonetheless. For many of us who care about human lives and are in touch with a strong sense of empathy, Arrival taps into an emotional state that’s been prevalent in days since Tuesday’s election results. Outsiders aren’t the ones to fear, rather it’s the people who fill the space of our daily lives who give us reason to feel afraid, isolated, and lonely. On that same stroke, the aliens in this film give us no reason to be afraid. The film, early and carefully, conditions us to the idea of their benevolence through both design and a pleasing construction of semantics. Arrival must un-teach decades’ worth of stories about evil-intentioned visitors from another planet and blockbuster-sized movies that would have us convinced that violence is the ultimate outcome, in order to teach us that mystery and misunderstanding does not equate doom. The sorrowful dread that seeps into the film is a result of other human beings and their refusal to think in terms of peace and love as opposed to hatred and violence. But even in the face of this, we are granted leading characters who fulfill the promise of humanity at its most thoughtful, caring, and impassionedly optimistic.
Language Arts: Much of the film revolves around a series of meetings between the newly arrived aliens, Louise, Ian (Jeremy Renner), and Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) as they attempt to communicate in an effort to understand each other. Villeneuve treats semantics the same way some alien arrival films treat explosions and space battles. He lingers on the construction and breakdown of language, displays it with such loving detail that it’s impossible for these moments not to become the cinematic highpoint of the film. There’s a scientific integrity to the way Louise and Ian decode this alien language, conveyed as broken ovals with branches to denote meaning and intent. As Louise begins unlocking the language she finds her thought-process begin to evolve, based on the idea that learning a language is tied to thought-process and biology, and that to communicate with another is also partly based in thinking like them. The film handles this beautifully and with a level of cerebral strangeness reminiscent of Villeneuve’s Enemy. But Louise and Ian’s quest for understanding is constantly under threat from the world’s government leaders who see this arrival as a threat. Colonel Weber becomes the figure in the middle, understanding both the need for peaceful scientific exploration, and the necessity in preparing for possible hostility. The film clearly falls on the side of science, but it does so in a way that feels honest to humanity as it is now. Arrival doesn’t condemn humanity, but rather shows the likely result that happens when humans stop communicating with each other and become ruled by fear and mistrust. Arrival comes the closest at depicting what the current-day human reaction would in all likelihood be in the face of alien contact, but humanity’s chance for survival is found in Louise’s personal story. It is in the story of a woman whose strength outweighs that of all the world’s powers and missiles that the film defines mankind’s future through.
Twelve to Midnight: The film’s third act delivers a turn so beautiful, so emotionally resonant that it was difficult not to feel shaken to the core. This virtue of feeling shook is not because the film’s reveal changes the intent of the story but because it delivers the summation of everything the film promised so poetically and completely. This reveal isn’t about the aliens per se, but about people and what they’re capable of when they chance understanding, and the life that can be found through the recognition of loss. This is science fiction filmmaking at its most confidant and most aware. To say more would be to deny a viewer experience that is not only necessary but deeply desired within our very nature.
Overall: Arrival achieves a perfect balance of emotion, mystery, and clarity through cinematographer Bradford Young, editor Joe Walker, composer Johann Johannsson, and screenwriter Eric Heisserer. Each of these artists have risen to a new level of talent that makes each one a name to watch. And Denis Villeneuve, the maestro of sustained emotional engagement, who brought all of this together, has reached the technical ingenuity and prophetic vision to stand alongside Christopher Nolan as one of the most necessary and continually relevant, grand-scale cinematic voices of the 21st century.
Arrival is the story of us at this very moment and there could not be a more profound and necessary catharsis for our post-election depression than a film that understands humanity’s greatness in possibility, the tragedy of our limitations, and the needful hope for our continued existence.
Featured Image: Paramount Pictures