Is the new science fiction blockbuster Arrival an overly gloomy look at things to come? Or is it a note of hope amid a desperate and divided time?
As I publish this review, the United States presidential election has just ended. We have elected somebody new to the White House, amid the renewed surge of impossible divisiveness. It’s been a very dark campaign season, something that is indicative of tensions on all levels. Trying to understand another one another has been a back burner priority. Now, it’s a priority that looms awfully large. Awfully. Following through on this, especially now, takes every last bit of our devotion, our energy, and our willpower. Yet, the cost of refusing the effort is far too great. As Leonard Cohen once said, “love’s the only engine of survival”.
Arrival, simultaneously smart yet simple as it is, might just understand all of this. In the film, twelve alien spacecrafts (dark and resembling huge, free floating oblong stones, shaped like a chunky toenail clipping), if that’s what we want to call them, arrive in twelve different, unrelated parts of the globe. How each locale chooses to deal with their new hovering massive visiting entity is up to them. Initially, there seems to be a collective understanding amid the human panic. But as time wears on, as the mystery of the visitors becomes slowly part of every day life, so too does good old fashion human divisiveness.
Arrival gets “big ideas” storytelling right in a way that eludes most such Hollywood-produced attempts.
Amy Adams plays Dr. Louise Banks, a young academic who specializes in symbology and complex translations. Through a series of fragmented moments early in the film, it is revealed that she, likely as a single mom, loses a teenage daughter to illness. Much like 2013’s Gravity, this shred of backstory is both just enough fuel the screenplay’s contemporary need to graft personal depth onto the protagonist, but also a distracting splinter of sorts. Louise is recruited by a military higher-up played by Forest Whitaker to do a job – communicate directly with the alien beings within the craft occupying U.S. airspace, and then translate accordingly.
From the slow scissor lift entry into the ship, to the baggy orange radiation suits Louise and her small team must wear, the entry into the aliens’ craft could not be more mundane. This is nothing more than our world; one that is recognizably worn, tired, and highly unsure. But it is also a determined one, never resigned to complacency in the face of such an extraordinary situation. The situation is an overwhelming one, as the visitors give no indication of who the are or why they’ve come to Earth. If the ships are communicating with one another, it’s in some undetectable, completely unknown way. The only way to engage these beings is to go into their physical space, and start talking.
Upon recruitment, Dr. Louise understands that she must start small, relying on body language and other such cues that can only be had one on one. But understandably, she’s completely unprepared for just how alien these beings, their environment, and their entire way of living truly is revealed to be. Forget any previous talk of “the other”; the reality of the differences between these creatures (and there is nothing discernibly human about them) is about as different as we could imagine. Reality itself might just be processed inherently differently between our race and theirs.
This is exactly where Arrival succeeds in hitting the mind-expanding notes it’s grasping for. It’s a terrifically cool execution of the most age-old of science fiction concepts: The alien invasion scenario. Arrival gets “big ideas” storytelling right in a way that eludes most such Hollywood-produced attempts. Inevitably, such films come off looking embarrassing and silly. Not this one. For many, it’s easy to imagine Arrival being a truly memorable mind-bender of a film experience.
Which makes its shortcomings rather frustrating. Like Jodie Foster in Contact (another otherwise fine film of this rare caliber), Amy Adams is all too often the “movie star in the room”, blurting out wisdoms, observations, and inevitably correct guesses before anyone else. It’s all too often up to her to diffuse her military cohorts from assuming the worst about the visitors. It’s their job to be on guard, but to what extent?
As directed by the currently very prolific Denis Villeneuve (Sicario, Prisoners), the tone is one of constant soupy fog and overwhelming gloom. There’s a blue/grey quality to the imagery, a flatness about the cinematography. The character details of the story have plenty of moments to match. It’s all no doubt intended to compliment our current reality of perceived hopelessness and a murky future. Yet, it’s hard to justify why the film must truly be saddled with this vibe to this degree. That Arrival feels oppressive to look at does it no favors.
But for those interested in reaching out, whether it be in initial defense or in humanitarian goodwill, Arrival will speak. It even has a clever streak amid its conceptual smarts, with global unity being the bottom line. Such a thought feels like a misty dream right now, something alien. Which means this film has arrived at just the right time.