Starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg
Director of Photography: Bradford Young
Music by Jóhann Jóhannsson
Edited by Joe Walker
Written by Eric Heisserer
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Rating: 9,5 out of 10
Arrival is a mind-blowing movie that avoids many of the typical sci-fi tropes by focusing on a strong female character, a story that has some surprises and the hypnotic direction that makes Denis Villeneuve as good a director as he is. It is not an entirely new concept that reminds you strongly of Contact and Interstellar (more on that later), but it easily surpasses those movies through its ambition to go further. Amy Adams is so good in this movie that there are not really any other actors necessary. Jeremy Renner does a fine job, even if he basically just does his thing, just as Forest Whitaker and Michael Stuhlbarg do. They’re all good but this is Adams’ movie. And Villeneuve’s, who might already be one of the best directors of our times. Jóhann Jóhannson’s music is perfectly suited, Bradford Young’s cinematography captures both breathtaking scenic shots and carefully calibrated frames that are significant for the movie’s structure and plot. What a great movie this is.
(spoilers possible – you really should know as little as you can before watching it)
The movie’s setting is as contemporary as possible. The world seems totally out of order. The titular arrival of the spaceships makes people panic and searching desperately for answers, which mirrors our current state, just minus aliens. One persistent theme is people looking up to find answers and shots (like the very first shot) that start on the ceiling and slowly move downwards. There is a scene of a soldier talking to his wife who is freaking out and he suppresses his emotions with great force. Most of the scientists, military guys and politicians try to act with a strict idea of not-emoting which still can’t be called rational. There seem be only two ways to react to a world that is upside down (literally in some scenes): panic or strict procedure (that is just covering up extreme anxiety, as symbolized by the military that can barely wait to shoot at the aliens).
Louise (Adams) is the one who doesn’t fall into one of these extreme camps. She is emotional (and the opening scenes give us some traumatic background for her) but she can deal with her emotions and they never stand in the way of her judgment or her actions. She is a scientist but not as strictly fact-oriented as others on her team. She often acts on intuition, against protocol which is what makes her succeed. Her character is what transcends the movie. She goes against rules and regulations to get what she wants, she is willing to break through the surface that our culture cherishes so much.
Yes, ultimately I loved the movie because it again served as a metaphor for us and our culture. Maybe metaphor is even saying too little because the movie constantly references civilization and indigenous cultures. At one point Ian (Jeremy Renner) claims that civilization is based on science, not on language, as Louise might think. I would say that he is right that our culture, ‘civilized culture’, indeed believes in science more than anything else while in other, tribal cultures communication is much more essential to their success (while other culture can mostly just point at scientific success, no matter which other areas it ruined). Louise at another point tells a story about the Aborigines (which she confesses is fake), but Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) uses this story to point out that their culture was almost made extinct, which supposedly makes our culture superior. The movie then puts our culture also at stake and at the hands of another, superior culture, so that all our arrogance means nothing in the face of being wiped out on a whim (even if that’s never the aliens’ intention). Our culture is represented as (again) cold, confused and lacking emotions while the other, seemingly threatening alien culture is only interested in bringing understanding.
The ultimate twist of the movie lies in the fact that the aliens’ culture allows them (and anyone who is willing to learn it) to live in a non-linear way, free of the restraints of time is so mind-blowing because it reinforces the idea that we are really living under constraints that are self-imposed. Even if the idea that there are Native cultures without a concept of time (see “The Hopi time myth”) is not true, our culture puts a special significance on time that dictates basically anything we do. The movie proposes a life where we are totally in control of our lives because we know the future, so that we know the consequences of our decisions. What a concept for a world in which most people feel completely out of control (so much so that they vote someone whose main argument is that their country is out of control). Of course, we don’t need an alien language to find that control but imagining that we are actually capable of that seems as alien to us as Heptapods. The ending challenges us to think about what we would do if had this kind of control. Would you want to have children if you knew they’d die before you? Would you start a relationship if you knew how it ended?
I think the language that the movie uses for its ending exists. Not an actual alien language that allows us to release our minds from the constraints of time but a language that allows us to live in peace with ourselves because we accept our life and the decisions we have made.
While the movie resembles Contact in many ways too, it draws most comparisons to Interstellar. That movie is also about space travel, it uses time in a non-linear way for its ending, it shows a world in need of saving and messages from across time that achieve that. But going beyond the norms of space and time is nothing more than a plot device in Interstellar. And while Arrival mostly tries to stay true to its scientific basics of linguistics (although there is some debate on that), Interstellar neglects all of that for fake drama. Sure, it has nice visuals but compare the ending of Arrival, where you really have to rethink the whole movie and can take something away from it which you can contemplate about for days and weeks, Interstellar uses all of its contrived plot coincidences to sell you the clunky concept of the fifth dimension being ‘love’. Let’s not even talk about the difference in female characters. Interstellar looks great and has some interesting ideas, but its core premise is silly and its message relies on the same old “humans are flawed but can still save the world if they only try/love hard enough”. I was disappointed by Interstellar when I first saw it, it worsened in my mind afterwards and now Arrival makes it look even worse.