Walking out of “Arrival,” one of the many thoughts running through my head was that it felt like a spiritual successor to Robert Wise’s 1951 film, “The Day The Earth Stood Still.”
The films are similar in that they are both stories of first contact and focus squarely on the dramatic angle of science fiction rather than an action one (A mistake that the 2008 remake made, but I digress).
Those willing to get on board with “Arrival,” a methodically paced sci-fi drama, will be rewarded with a timely, intelligent story on empathy, xenophobia, the fear of the unknown, and most importantly, communication and how through understanding each other can we truly enrich our lives and make the world a better place.
When a dozen extraterrestrial spacecrafts landed at different locations around the world, the U.S. military recruits a renowned linguist, Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and a theoretical physicist, Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), to find a way to communicate with the aliens, dubbed Heptapods, and discover their ultimate purpose for landing on Earth.
That is the bare bones plot synopsis. For this film, it’s best to not know much going in because many of the film’s surprises are more rewarding for it. There is one revelation that happens in the third act that I wish I could talk about, but for now, all I will say is that this is a film where the ending completely re-contextualizes everything you saw before.
With that aside, I’ve noticed that “Arrival” is part of a recent resurgence of thinking science fiction in film. Films like “Gravity,” “Interstellar,” and “The Martian” are all stories where characters have to use their intelligence and ingenuity in order to solve their problems.
Where “Arrival” separates itself from those films is the heart of its story: Communication. While nations and armies around the world ready themselves for violent conflict, the main characters work tirelessly with other professionals in their fields to decipher the aliens’ language.
Fear and hatred are worthless causes that ultimately result in catastrophe. It’s only through the drive to understand and the ability to empathize can a conflict be resolved peacefully.
Just a few weeks ago, America elected a fascist, fear-mongering, xenophobic, cowardly demagogue as its next president. While the release time for “Arrival” was coincidental, its thematic underpinnings resonate now more than ever.
Even removed from this moment in time, the film remains relevant because of humanity’s unfortunately ever-present anxiety, which is the fear of the unknown. It’s so easy to fear what we don’t understand.
It can be difficult to forge trust with whom we perceive as “the other.” Trumpism has become powerful because it stoked unevolved instincts. It is designed to trap people in a state of being uninformed.
When people are without knowledge, they fear, when they fear, they hate, and when they hate, they act on those dark, twisted, negative impulses. In this state, compassion, empathy, and knowledge are seen as delusions and weaknesses.
But they aren’t and never will be. Without giving too much away, it’s only through taking the time to talk does progress get made. “Arrival’s” message runs deep, but it never comes across as preachy or condescends to its audience. It encourages the idea that we can better ourselves and those around us if we reach out to each other.
Some would say that politics have no business in film and movies are only supposed to be a means of escapist entertainment. I reject that. While fun, mindless entertainment has its place, film and all other media have always been a vessel to express our thoughts and ideas.
As citizens of this world, it is our obligation to be aware of our surroundings. When you disconnect yourself, you risk falling prey to false, dangerous information. When you open your ears, listen, and act, the benefits can be fulfilling for all.
Luckily, the film still works even if all that sociopolitical commentary is removed. This is a great story and it has a great main character to follow along with. This is quite possibly Amy Adams’ best performance in her career. She imbues her character with intelligence, empathy, and a steadfast nature without the risk of coming across as unrelatable.
In an age where female representation is slowly but surely getting better in media, this character is yet another welcome addition to the growing list of strong, smart female characters.
The only downside to Louise Banks being the heart of the story is that Ian Donnelly isn’t quite as fleshed out as the filmmakers intended. While Jeremy Renner is great in the role, I didn’t quite believe his character would make the decision he makes at the end.
Speaking of the ending, there is one moment in the third act where Banks makes a phone call to somebody and makes an emotional appeal to him rather than a logical one. While it does come across as a bit of a cheat, I can understand the reason behind it.
Banks is a character who understands the power of words. Words can be used to heal or be used to hurt. As Donnelly quotes at the beginning, “Language is the first weapon drawn in a conflict.”
Even stubborn individuals can be persuaded if someone takes the time to empathize with them. The moment we stop trying to understand each other, that is the moment where our fate will be sealed.
While I can’t say this is his best film (“Enemy” would be my favorite of his filmography), this is amongst director Denis Villeneuve’s best work.
Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score is an absolute delight; ranging from unearthly to somber. I’m happy “Arrival” abides by its own guidelines. There is no climax where things get blown up or where a character makes a grand speech about how we need to be better toward each other.
Without spoiling it, in the end, it all comes down to Banks as she makes a decision that will change her life forever. When I got to the closing minutes, I went from sitting comfortably in my chair to being on the edge of my seat in shock.
Even after seeing it almost two weeks ago, I’m still not sure I’ve fully deciphered every one of “Arrival’s” meanings. But it makes me want to understand.
Final Rating: 9 out of 10