It is difficult with my American ego to not view everything for its potential comments on our society, but Arrival, despite its global scale and preoccupations, feels particularly imperative. Louise, a brilliant linguist professor (Amy Adams, so good you forget she’s acting) is recruited by the U.S. military as they desperately try to establish the purpose and motivations of twelve oval-like spacecrafts that have landed all throughout the world, plunging it into hysteria and despair. The parallels to the last week (or last year) in the United States surrounding the 2016 election are pretty obvious. And Arrival is all the more beautiful for it.
This is a truly reductive statement, but in many ways Arrival (the latest from French/Canadian auteur Denis Villeneuve) plays like a vastly superior Interstellar. Villeneuve, perhaps, owes something to Christopher Nolan for the pseudo-realism that he adopts to tell an otherwise unrealistic story, but where Interstellar is bloated, sprawling, over-written, and thematically unfocused, Arrival is lean and emotionally potent in its message. Although it has been billed as a thriller, gripping is probably the better word – aesthetically and intellectually. Villeneuve has already proven himself a master of creating raw suspense (Polytechnique, Sicario), but while that skill has traditionally been used to instill a deep sense of dread in his audience, here it creates the edge-of-seat need for the next piece of the puzzle. And Arrival is, at least in part, a puzzle movie. Villeneuve’s understanding of the power of sound is crucial here, as Louise’s journey towards understanding these aliens (brilliantly designed in regards to their personal means of communication) is speckled by overlapping memories of her daughter, whom she lost to Leukemia. She and Ian (Jeremy Renner), a scientist in the top of his field, are putting together the puzzle of the alien language just as we are in the audience, desperately racing the clock as tensions escalate between other countries and their relationship to “their” respective spacecrafts.
Louise’s book, that Ian is seen reading when they first met, claims that language is a weapon. It is a theme the film reinforces, as the aliens, themselves as seemingly slow to learn English as Louise is their own, misuse the word “weapon” in a casual conversation, throwing the world further into chaos and terror. The fear, certainly, stems partially from the unknown. But, perhaps more importantly, it also stems from an inherent distrust. Many countries lack the patience to attempt to fully understand the alien form of communication. As steeped in blues and suspenseful as Bradford Young’s cinematography, as off-putting as Johann Johannson’s music, as unsettling as the aliens themselves, it is telling that the most frightening image in the entire film is that of a host of computer monitors blinking to black, the word “disconnected” flashing angrily in red, one by one, as other countries follow suit.
Arrival is a film about how we react to fear. It is singularly focused on its core message (communication, connection) and in this science fiction world what that apex of that might look like. Sometimes puzzle-like to a fault (and if it has one it is its clinical treatment of the newly introduced pieces), but ultimately relevant and relentlessly optimistic. The science fiction film we need, although perhaps do not deserve.