Arrival (2016) by Denis Villeneuve
Review by Andrew Swafford
A large, unfathomable thing just appears in different places around the world simultaneously. It does not appear to be from this world. It remains static, but is sure to move--or vanish--sometime soon. Fascinated, an influx of people congregate in front of each one to stand in amazement and speculation. It seems to speak to them, but different listeners hear different messages. Some are scared and angered by its presence, some attempt to understand how it works, and others gain personal insight that can’t be truly communicated to friends and family.
This is the plot synopsis of Arrival, the new film by Denis Villeneuve--but it could also be said to describe cinema in general.
Arrival fulfills one of our most fundamental desires as moviegoers: the desire to be amazed. Movies have many purposes--to see through the eyes of others, to see ourselves on screen, to escape the world of the mundane, to imagine hypothetical realities, etc. But often the cinematic experiences that leave the most significant impressions on us are those that amaze (despite the adjective form of the word being overused to the point of meaninglessness). Science fiction is especially good at this. In the 1960s, audiences flocked to dark rooms across the country to be amazed by 2001: A Space Odyssey. In the 1970s, kids lined up around the block to be amazed by Star Wars. Just a few years ago, 3D IMAX screens finally felt necessary when we were amazed by Gravity. This year, is there any moviegoing experience that causes us to lean back in absorbing wonder moreso than Arrival? I can’t think of anything.
Not a lot happens in Arrival. Most of the film’s action is mental and theoretical, with different experts and professionals studying data and swapping theories on how to determine the purpose of newly arrived alien life. This likely sounds boring on paper, but it’s vital. Although the film’s marketing has focused on the movie’s militaristic setting, it’s not about conflict; it’s about language. Amy Adams plays a distinguished academic in the world of linguistics who is tasked by the US government with learning how these aliens communicate, in hopes of avoiding genocidal violence against humanity. Therefore, much of Villeneuve’s narrative is procedural and methodical, directly subverting our expectation for intergalactic warfare, kaiju-style destruction, or high-tech power fantasy. Instead, the film focuses our attention on the minutia of how language is conceptualized and how its subtleties influence our worldviews and relationships. (While watching, I was often reminded of the George Carlin quote: “the quality of our thoughts and ideas can only be as good as the quality of our language.”) It is still, properly and cinematically, amazing, in the dictionary sense of the word.
The temptation of that conventional militaristic “strike-first” mentality is always present, though, as is the desire to be one step ahead of other world powers dealing with the same crisis. Some of the most arresting moments of the film involve Amy Adams’s heroine using logic and clear dialogue to talk down a military leader (Forest Whitaker) who is more concerned with asserting nationalist/masculine dominance over the alien life than understanding its complexities. Making the right decision is always in opposition to making the simplest one, which is an idea carried over from Villeneuve’s 2015 drug-cartel drama Sicario as well. Both movies are hard to not compare to the current political climate (not just in America, but the world), and while Sicario presents the horrors of violent boys-club approaches to multifaceted problems with no easy solutions, Arrival allows us plenty of room to marvel and wonder at the grandness of the Question, as well as plenty of time to formulate carefully nuanced Answers. After an exhausting and terror-inducing election that largely concerned machismo, aggressive fear of the unknown Other, international competition for hegemony, and the policing of language, Arrival feels like a true force of good that eventually must break Western modes of thought and narrative convention to get at something resembling true peace of mind.
The film is optimistically curious in the most cinematic way, as illustrated by the first major encounter with the aforementioned alien thing. It’s a long (maybe minutes-long?) helicopter shot, slowly approaching the monolithic superobject and circling around it with a deliberate steadiness that never thrills but always draws you in, eventually landing in the center of the military camp and allowing us to gaze from the ground level with Amy Adams. Seeing the scope of this thing on the big screen is essential. And considering the similarities between the enormous alien ship and another famous enigmatic black shape, this moment and many others feel reminiscent of Kubrick’s god-level 2001, in a way that somehow never diminishes Villeneuve’s vision. Rather than reminding you that you’re not watching 2001, Villeneuve demonstrates directorial skill that he’s picked up from Kubrick and really knows how to use for his own purposes. In a way, you could say that the entirety of Arrival is staged and paced like an extended adaptation of 2001’s moon sequence--admittedly the slightest section of that film--that has been given a lot more emotional weight and human drama. Villeneuve has clearly learned from the greats, but it never feels derivative or pastiche--Villeneuve’s film has a directorial and narrative voice all its own, especially considering the mind-bending uniqueness of the last half, which dare not be spoiled.
Arrival is the kind of science fiction film that we haven’t seen in years: it’s big and spectacular without being cheap or flashy; it’s slow and ponderous without being boring; it is thought-provoking without seeming pretentious or self-aggrandizing; it is politically pertinent without being ham-fisted or reductive. On episode 57 of the podcast, I argued for 2001 as my pick for the greatest movie of all time, precisely because I think the best movies feel more like experiences than stories. In many ways, Arrival fits that bill. Time will tell whether or not this is canonized as one of the greatest science-fiction films of our generation, but it goes above and beyond in its ambition and succeeds in a spectacular way. And unlike the alien spaceships I compared cinema to earlier, this thing isn't disparately spread out around the globe. It's playing in your local multiplex, and that is also amazing.
If you agree with Zach, who saw Doctor Strange and wrote “I deserve more,” then here you go.