“What is your purpose on Earth?” That is the question at the heart of Denis Villenevue’s smart, intimate Arrival. Of course, the question is being directed at mollusk-like lifeforms in hovering monoliths, inquiring whether the confirmation of alien life brings with it our betterment or our destruction. However, it’s a question that could be addressed to anyone on screen or in the audience. What do you want to accomplish with your time? Would you rather blindly defend your own worldview or work to understand other’s perspectives?
For Louise (a devastatingly good Amy Adams), the film’s intrepid linguist attempting to communicate with the extra-terrestrials hovering overhead, that question is more complicated than it first appears. After all, the aliens have to understand the concept of questions, the use of the “general you” vs. the “specific you,” and specificity of location. There exists little room for nuance and patient exploration when we communicate with one another, much less when we communicate with something that could potentially immolate us without a moment’s notice.
Science fiction forces us to examine ourselves through the guise of a confrontation with the extraordinary. Through it, we can gain an increased understanding of both the best and worst of humanity’s instincts. We either seek out the astonishing or we find the astonishing thrust upon us. How we respond determines how we continue to function within a changed world. Arrival presents both humanity’s virtues (a desire to understand) and weaknesses (a fear of that which we don’t understand), but it is a film that ultimately places its faith in the idea that an individual’s inherent decency can transform the weaknesses of mob paranoia. Arrival wears many of its sci-fi influences on its sleeve, from the 2001: A Space Odyssey-styled monoliths to the Close Encounters of the Third Kind way it places an ordinary, driven individual at its center.
The film opens on loss and grief and that, along with the somber blues and grays that cinematographer Bradford Young utilizes throughout the film, keeps the viewer in a melancholic mindset. We watch as the most alien-appearing of alien spaceships land in twelve areas across the earth. We learn that America is forced into communication with other, sometimes adversarial, countries (including tense, fragile alliances with Russia and China), and the only opportunities to communicate with the lifeforms occur when a spacecraft opening grants access. Louise, recruited by Col. G.T. Weber (Forest Whitaker, doing…an accent?) and accompanied by theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (a well-cast Jeremy Renner), finds herself in glass-separated proximity to aliens who communicate in complex spheres that look like a cross between abstract art and a coffee cup stain.
Slowly, Louise begins to teach them how to communicate with humanity and learns the meaning of their once indecipherable language. However, there is always a ticking clock in the film’s background. It’s only a matter of time until public panic forces drastic action and it’s only a matter of time until a government body loses patience and decides to take drastic, violent action. There’s a brilliantly realized sequence in which it’s becomes obvious a breakthrough has happened as a communication screen suddenly goes black. Eventually, information sharing ceases and each country and its aliens become more insulated, and a doomsday scenario is approaching. It’s a sad commentary on humanity’s tendency to only rely on others until we feel they are no longer needed, always for our betterment over the betterment of the whole.
Arrival, despite the global Armageddon-based politics, remains an intimate story of Amy Adam’s Louise, and Adams is a blessing. She has a natural ability to make any character she plays– be it a Disney princess thrown out of a cartoon world or a wounded woman who wants to talk to aliens—and make their situations seem entirely believable.
Ultimately, Arrival is a film about loss, staring into the abyss and choosing to embrace the elation that accompanies heartbreak. It’s also a film that preaches the importance of understanding one another through patience and communication. Despite the film’s darkness, there’s an abundance of hope present. It’s a film that arrived exactly when I needed it, and it’s one of the year’s best.