Changing the things we can, and confronting the things we cannot.
There is a double meaning to the title Arrival, although you wouldn’t know it if you haven’t seen the film. On the surface, Arrival looks like another science-fiction thriller, unraveling an extraordinary world to an ordinary one, quietly observing how one reacts to the other. What the film turns into as it draws to its closing moments is a question of mortality, a search for purpose in life, and how we face the inevitable.
Confronting the life-long question of “Are we alone in the universe?”, Arrival starts on a bleak day where alien ships land on different continents all over the globe. Their landings seems to be without pattern or purpose, but whatever their motivations are, they don’t confront the human residents with hostility. Their ships just rest there, floating vertically over the horizon, awaiting brief interactions with the humans watching in awe below.
Enter Louise Banks (Amy Adams), an experienced linguist who is notable for her translation of thousands of languages. Louise is recruited alongside physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) by Colonel Webber (Forest Whitaker) to find out as much as they can about Earth’s new visitors, and if they establish communication, find out what they’re doing here. As Louise delves deeper into the aliens’ minds, she makes a discovery so shocking that will change the course of the human species forever.
One of the most unique elements of the film is how intelligently it approaches its strange premise. Director Denis Villeneuve, who directed the deeply unsettling films Prisoners and Sicario, approaches Arrival not as a typical science-fiction blockbuster, but instead as a quiet observation of the extraterrestrial, how human beings react to the unknown, and how we build bridges to learn foreign communication. I didn’t know what exactly to expect when going in to see Arrival, but after watching it I know one thing for certain: it is definitely not an action movie. A thriller, maybe. But the film doesn’t excite you as much as it educates you, and that immersion in knowledge is where the movie finds its niche.
Let me break down one of the movie’s key scenes to show you what I’m talking about. In one exchange between Webber and Louise, Webber tells her to ask the aliens one question: “What is your purpose here?” One sentence, five words. Seems simple enough. Yet when Louise breaks it down, she explains how complex the question actually is to those unfamiliar with the language, from differentiating between a question and a statement, to identifying the meaning behind “what”, to whether “your” is plural or singular, to even defining what the word “purpose” means. To us, these are simple concepts because we’ve been educated on these since we were children. But when communicating with someone or something else that has spent their entire lives learning another form of communication? How do you even begin to bridge that gap?
This film’s exploration into our interpretation of language is one that is only seldom observed in both mainstream and independent cinema alike. The fact that Villeneuve translated it into a science-fiction film is sheer brilliance on his part, as he draws comparisons between the humans and the aliens in the film to the real-life encounters we’ve shared with our own species in the past. Think, for instance, the first time the pilgrims landed in America and met Native Americans for the first time in the 1620’s. Spaceships and aliens aside, would their interactions really have been that different from what we’re seeing in the film?
This is a great film from Villeneuve: a thoughtful minimalist masterpiece that evokes the same eeriness and existentialism as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey does. If there is any weakness, it is the drudging tone and pacing that follows the film everywhere it goes. We as moviegoers are so used to movies that are quick-paced, fast-tempoed and always watching something happen on-screen. It’s not usual to find a film as slow-moving, contemplative, and uneventful as this. In that lack of excitement, viewers might have a hard time immersing themselves into such a sublime picture when they’re so used to watching flashy effects and movement light up the screen.
And yet, I don’t fault Arrival for this choice of tone. Not one bit. That’s because the pacing isn’t a mistake on its part: it’s intentional. If real-life aliens ever did come to our planet, our first instinct wouldn’t be to shoot at them like a Michael Bay movie. No, we would try to establish communication with them and find out what exactly they want from us. We would be surprised, confused, scared, maybe intimidated all at once by their presence. In embodying our emotions in such a situation, Arrival’s slow pacing is validated due to the reality the film tries to encompass, not the sensationalism that every other Hollywood blockbuster contrives to.
Arrival is much more than standard science-fiction. I would classify it as science-philosophy. It poses questions, leaves its answers open to interpretation, and watches as two different species push past their cultural boundaries so they could try and understand each other. And after watching all of these events unfold on the screen, we are forced to ask ourselves the most important question of all: if our knowledge expanded beyond that of our human capabilities, would we use it to change what we previously couldn’t? The answer will shock you.