Arrival wasn’t exactly the movie I was expecting. Maybe I ought to stop having such preconceived notions of what movie I’m about to see. I assumed it was a movie about linguists and how they would try to crack the code of how they’d communicate with aliens. Communication still played a major part in the movie, but it was less a technical exploration but rather an emotional one – how does language and communication work between people with different perspectives, and how can we bring those perspectives together for a greater good?
The movie begins shortly before the titular arrival. Amy Adams as Dr. Louise Banks introduces us to her daughter and charts her tragically short life (no spoiler here beyond the first minute of the movie, and quite honestly it’s shot in such bleary lighted nostalgia from the first image of the daughter that you can tell at the top of the minute that she’ll not be doing so hot by the end). After that, the movie is all go no stop, to its great benefit. The aliens arrive, Louise is recruited alongside a less suave Ian Malcolm stand in (Ian Donnelly, played by Jeremy Renner) to attempt to communicate with them, and it’s off to the races.
And it really feels like a race. The movie comes in just under two hours, but it moves at such a sensational clip that it’s hard to even notice that the time has passed. There are no slow or dead spots in the movie, and though the tension often shifts it never diffuses while always feeling organic and satisfying. The tension at first arises from the aliens, and the dramatic, deadening effect they have on the world, and then shifts to the actual meeting with the aliens. The early scenes are incredibly strong and intelligently crafted. We see characters react to the alien ships for a good fifteen to twenty minutes before we as the audience get a chance to see them, and the mystery building mimics the listlessness and undirected nervousness that the characters and the world feel. It was the only point in the movie where I found myself disappointed that I’d seen the trailer, because they do such a nice job of hiding the reveal without making it feel like it’s a gimmick.
From there the tension shifts twice. The aliens are obviously the first notable tonal change, with the gravity of the realization that we’re not alone in the world shaking each character to their core. Ian Donnelly pukes after their first encounter, while Dr. Banks is too terrified to even speak. The movie overall sketches characters and a world that feel realistic – the humans respond to the aliens in a variety of ways, but no one recovers quickly from the seismic change. As Dr. Banks tremors while back on the ground, she turns to the man in charge of the operation (Forest Whitaker as Colonel Weber) and manages to ask: “am I fired?”. He grins and responds: “you’re doing better than the last guy”.
The third shift relies upon the nuanced response of humankind. Every character responds in radically different ways, ranging from attempts to friendship to violence, but they never feel unmotivated and they never feel one-dimensional. No one is made out to be notably villainous. The US Army is pretty notably freaked out and operates defensively and pragmatically, swinging between ally and antagonist to Banks, but it’s never suggested that they are wholly in the wrong or she is wholly in the right. China, who at first is set up as the villain as they marshal their firepower in plans to retaliate, only threaten to unleash their attack after the aliens appear to offer them a weapon. They turn the aliens down and demand that they leave. They are threatening to attack the aliens not because they want to screw the rest of Earth, but because they don’t want anyone, including their own nation, to seize a super weapon. It makes for a wildly more interesting and justified antagonist and erases the suggestion of a villain.
The movie toys with the ways the language changes the way that we perceive the world, and how aliens might have a different language and a different perception. Its suggestions are obvious – it is patently unlikely that any alien life form we meet would perceive the universe the same way we would, and vice versa, but that might not be bad. We might have an opportunity to recontextualize each other’s understanding, if only Amy Adams can teach us how to communicate with each other.
Overall, Arrival is an immensely enjoyable film. It sustains tension through a number of tonal shifts that feel built on previous bits while still upping the stakes and changing the game. Its characters and forces feel nuanced and well realized, and help to tie the various threads together. It is a fantastical movie, but the human elements feel real. And unlike most movies of its ilk, it is unapologetically a blockbuster while still saying something. Most movies in this genre, I feel, beat their message too hard (Christopher Nolan, for example, never makes me think though I can tell he thinks he does). Arrival does make you think. It doesn’t do so in a big proclamation with great self-importance, and it doesn’t have a life-changing message, but it delivers its small meaningful message with a lot of poise, humor, reality, and heart.
Arrival arrived with eight out of ten stars.
I happen to be reading a book on linguistics right now, and was sorry to see so much erroneous science in the movie (sorry to go Neil Degrasse Tyson). Amy Adams jumps in to communicating with the aliens after making a huge number of assumptions, such as the idea that they would have sentence structure remotely similar to ours. The assumption that aliens would have words, or words that correlate to nouns and verbs, is a huge leap of faith. The movie also hinges on the idea that the language you speak morphs your perception of the world (known as the Whorf Hypothesis), a theory that has been largely rejected as false (I thought it was true until I read this book and realized how nuts it actually is!). If you have absolutely any interest in language, pick up The Language Instinct by Steven Picker.
Jeremy Renner is a treasure. I just love him. I love him as Hawkeye. I thought he was the only good part of American Hustle (that scene where he gives someone a microwave was the only scene I genuinely enjoyed in that movie). He is superb here too. I feel like he has a bad reputation for some reason, but I like him in most everything.
My favorite “realistic” portion of the movie is right after the aliens arrive. Amy Adams sits around in her bed for a few days and watches the news. The world effectively shuts down (before it starts to ramp back up again). Usually movies act like there’d be mass riots and antics right off the bat, but realistically probably everyone would be so numb and shocked that they’d not be able to do anything. A+