Movies: Arrival

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2022-02-23 07:00:00-05:00 No comments

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I've lamented before how most science fiction movies are not science fiction, but an action movie with a flimsy overleaf of SF stapled atop. Arrival is an actual science fiction movie, and one of the finest to come along in recent years, both because of the breadth of its ideas and how they are lovingly personalized.

The premise (as derived from Ted Chiang's short "The Story Of Your Life") involves what by now is a fairly shopworn SF staple: first contact with aliens, by way of a klatsch of giant ships that materialize over different corners of the earth. (See also: V, Independence Day, Childhood's End, Alien Nation, etc. etc.) A linguist with a now-desolate personal life, Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is summarily drafted by the hard-nosed Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to decipher the alien language and establish two-way communication. The first and most pressing question they want answered is why they are here, and whether or not that answer deserves a first strike as a response.

Louise's mission: make contact.

Louise is partnered with another scientist, theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner). He's as thrilled to be part of a first-contact mission as she is shaken to the core — although that doesn't stop him from tossing his cookies after their first alien interview. The "Heptapods", as they come to call them, do not seem to use speech, but have a writing system of breathtaking complexity. With Ian's aid Louise establishes with the two aliens ("Abbott and Costello", as Ian calls them) what she hopes are the primitives for a dialogue, one leading to that final, potentially deadly, question.

Arrival doesn't try to hurry through this material. It treats it with the patience and intelligence it deserves, although it wisely condenses a few stages of Louise and Ian's quest for the sake of storytelling efficiency. I love it when a movie assumes the audience is smart enough to keep up, as this one does. I love it twice as much when a movie teaches us how to share a state of mind, and one of my favorite such states of mind is that of someone with a burning question undertaking a process for reaching what they hope is the truth (Blow-Up, Blow Out, Spotlight, etc.)

The alien language and its pitfalls.

All this, though, is only half the reason why Arrival is so special, and to talk about the rest in detail veers into spoiler territory. I will tread as lightly as I can. From the beginning, and throughout the film, we see snatches of Louise's life: with her daughter Hannah, first and infant and then a curious little girl and then a slightly dialed-down teenager. They share all the joys and agonies of mother- and daughterhood, and there is no suspense in knowing that Hannah died as a teen of what appears to have been a congenital disease. But there is great suspense in the way all this is gradually connected back to the reason for the aliens' appearances, one whose immense personal relevance for Louise comes as much as a shock to her as it does to us.

Denis Villeneuve, the director, caught my eye when he made the bleak and expansive Sicario, a movie about the drug trade with the resignation and cynicism of Traffic but the soul-swallowing vistas of Paris, Texas. Most of us know him and SF now by way of Blade Runner 2049 and Dune, both excellent, but Arrival was his first science fiction project (his earlier movie Enemy is better classified as psychological horror), and it demonstrated how his instincts for such material have long been spot-on. He knows how to awe us with the grand and gloomy scale of the alien vessel and its inhabitants, but he also knows how to draw us into Louise's mind, and how to take the weather of her spirit — something at least as important as her intellectual ambitions in this story.

Louise's intellectual ambitions vs. the weather of her soul.

The few truly brainy mainstream SF movies all owe something to a couple of antecedents. The biggest one is 2001: a space odyssey, oft-imitated for its icy atmospheres and general feeling of remove than for its ideas or its other ambitions. Arrival has a few nods in that direction — the great ominous spaces, the highly abstract score, the remoteness and insularity of the aliens — but all its best work is original. It also has one other thematic connection back to that film: the notion that the human race has yet to do its greatest work, and that we will only accomplish it by letting our wonder and our curiosity do what our fears and lusts cannot.

The movie also offers us one other thing — again, something I have to dance around, but see the movie and consider this. Louise's choices, as they are revealed to us completely, could imply she was being selfish (by choosing a course of action that was likely to doom someone from the beginning), or selfless (because without those actions the rest of humanity might well not have benefited from her choices the way they do). That the movie frames this as a question we must answer ourselves, not as a dogmatic reading we must receive, is another sign of both its artistry and its craft.

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