I’m still trying to figure out how to tell you about Arrival. What I can say other than it’s a movie that made me laugh with sheer delight as the plot came together, and then cry because at the end of a really awful week (election week) it made me feel hope for humanity. You really ought to see it.
But it’s hard for me to tell you in more detail what I liked about Arrival without seriously spoiling the plot, and it’s one where I want you to go into it unspoiled. I want you to have that same moment I did, when you realize where things are going, and it just makes you happy.
So what can I tell you?
The movie is absolutely gorgeous, for one. The shot where you first get a real look at the alien ship as it floats over the clouds in Montana is majestic and eerie. It’s not an effects/action extravaganza – a rare thing for scifi films these days, it feels like – but what they have is so well done. The moment where the characters go from Earth gravity to the strange, tilted gravity of the ship is eerie as well, an unexpected shift of perception.
Really, the inverted gravity of the alien ship rolls in with the plot, the shifting narrative to show the necessity of changing how we look at and understand the events of the film. The main character of the film, Louise (Amy Adams) is a linguist, so she’s very concerned with what is said versus what is understood, bridging perceptions. The explanations of what she does and why (such as why building a mutual vocabulary using written language is better than with spoken) are all fascinating – particularly to someone who isn’t very familiar with linguistics.
I also genuinely liked the character Donnelly, played by Jeremy Renner in a rare role where wears glasses to let us all know he’s an intellectual. Donnelly starts out as very cocky and sure of himself, but once Louise convinces him that communication is key and the best approach isn’t mathematical, he throws himself behind her efforts one hundred percent. It’s a character dynamic that’s particularly rare considering the gender split, and very enjoyable for that reason.
One of the main questions of the film is how humanity will deal with the arrival of aliens, a generally peaceful first contact. Will we come together, or will it tear us apart around already existent fault lines? The only fault that I can really find with the film is that after building up an intense and complicated international situation, the third act solution is a little too simple, a little too pat. The time travel bit of the story has the same sort of problems that many time travel plots have, which is that in the moment, it’s delightful, and then later as you think about it, the problems of a deterministic universe become apparent.
Of course, it’s a film that asks a lot more questions, about relationships, about what sort of journey makes the consequences worth it – about if you had a chance to do everything differently, would you still live the same life, even knowing how it all ends? These are all big, crunchy, human questions, and it explores them beautifully.
Full disclosure, I haven’t read the Ted Chiang story that the move is adapted from, Story of Your Life. After what I’ve heard from my fellow podcast hosts on Skiffy and Fanty, it’s definitely on my list.
If you need a beautiful, hopeful film, one that reminds you scifi film can be something other than explodey or tinged with existential horror, see Arrival. It’s probably the most thoughtful film scifi I’ve seen since Her.