Denis Villeneuve’s quiet science-fiction film scrambles your brain and wrings out your heart.
There are days that define your story beyond your life.
I’d been looking forward to Arrival for months, and it was the kind of release where I avoided the trailers as best as I could, because I knew I’d want to go in relatively cold. And then this week happened, and I literally forgot I had tickets to see it last night until yesterday morning. “Oh yeah,” I thought, “I’m supposed to go the theater tonight.” I didn’t even want to get out of bed (though I did, because I have high schoolers that count on me), and the best thing for me to do is inject my veins with the opiate of the cinema?
Actually, yeah. That was the right call, and it should be yours, too.
One of my favorite podcasts, The Watch, had a great conversation in the wake of recent events about what we should expect from our entertainment in this upside-down new world. Something that Andy Greenwald said that I really like wasn’t about Arrival (though they did discuss it), but NBC’s sitcom The Good Place. Showrunner Mike Schur utilized warmth and deep human empathy on Parks and Recreation, but while on this day that feels like a forgotten fantasy about big-hearted, functioning government, there’s even more of a place for a high-concept serialized charmer about the basics of human ethics and dignity, for 22 minutes a week.
For most of us, entertainment is an escape. We like anti-heroes and deep, dark dramas because in the back of our minds, we know we still have the real world to return to. I don’t know if there’s going to be as much of a market for that anymore, and the films and television shows that are coming down the pike soon, produced before Tuesday but not airing until after the cultural climate has irrevocably changed…will they look prescient, or like a musty time capsule? Is there any appetite for the sadism of The Walking Dead? Does the plight of cowboy robots seem ludicrous now, or will we realize that we now envy them?
Which brings me, finally, to Arrival. I’m going to go real light on plot in this section, because I really do recommend not knowing much. (I’ll go in on the real spoilers way down below.) The broad strokes: twelve alien vessels (called “shells”) have appeared at seemingly arbitrary points around the globe. Humanity has no idea what their purpose is. Are they benevolent? Are they just curious? Is it Childhood’s End? All that we know is that every 18 hours, a gravity-defying shaft opens up that allows people to “interact” with the shells’ spindly passengers, who use an aural and written language we can’t begin to understand. That’s where Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), world-renowned linguist, comes in.
The plot isn’t the point, of course. What’s fascinating, and most successful, about Arrival is its subtext, and the narrative shell game that Villeneuve (with Eric Heisserer’s screenplay, adapted from the short story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang) is playing. There are no sequences of mayhem, no bombast. There are stretches that are almost Malick-ian in their soft-focus beauty, thanks to gifted cinematographer Bradford Young (Selma). It’s a film that showcases quiet, and thinking, and thinking about thinking. Ultimately, it’s about communication, and how we break down those barriers to a higher understanding. It leads to a late reveal that is brilliant not for how it pulls the rug on its audience (it doesn’t, not exactly), but for how it illuminates everything that came before.
As Louise, Amy Adams gives a masterclass in restraint, internalizing the weight suddenly placed upon her alongside the grief she carries for a lost child. She is asked to carry just about every scene in the film, and is very, very good. (She’ll get another Oscar nomination, for sure.) Jeremy Renner is refreshingly natural as Ian, the theoretical scientist who’s at first more interested in asking “Abbott and Costello” about faster-than-light travel than explaining compound sentence structure. Their partnership, both Louise & Ian’s and Adams & Renner’s, provides the film with needed stability while the centrifuge of everything we think we know spins around them. Forest Whitaker plays Colonel Weber, with what I think is supposed to be a New England accent, but despite the familiar “why won’t the government/military listen to Amy Adams?” turn the film takes in the second half, he’s a good man, if ultimately a powerless one.
None of that matters, really. Not now. Maybe later, in a few months, hopefully sooner, we can be in a place where we can evaluate a piece of art (for that is what this is) on its on merits, on its own craft, and not get wrapped around the axle of what it says about The World. Villeneuve is one of our most interesting directors currently working, telling stories about grief and ill-considered revenge (Prisoners), familial reconciliation in the Middle East (Incendies), and the compromises we make in “noble” causes like the Mexican drug war (Sicario). He’s currently in production on a Blade Runner sequel, which you can expect will challenge what it means to be human. Basically, he wants every film he makes to be About Something, which is applause-worthy even if it doesn’t always work perfectly.
Arrival is no exception, lacking both the muscular heft of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar and the pure popcorn pleasure of Ridley Scott’s The Martian, but outpacing both in its personal expression of humanity. All three are excellent films, films that trade in optimism and can-do spirit, but come at the same question from different angles: How do we come to know the Unknowable? And what does that mean for how we relate to each other, and the careful words we must use when your listener can’t tell the difference between a weapon, a tool, and a gift?
I’d like to talk about spoilers now. So if you haven’t seen the film yet, don’t scroll past this image. Come back later.
Is it safe? Are they all gone?
The film begins by taking a page from Pixar’s Up, with what we are trained to believe is a prologue. Louise plays with her young daughter; the daughter grows up; the daughter gets sick and passes away. Louise is devastated, and so are we, and we assume that as these moments recur throughout the film, we are understanding how Louise’s grief informs her choices now.
And then it flips, and becomes something even more powerful: these aren’t scenes from a prologue, but an epilogue, as the understanding of the heptopods’ language grants Louise a breakdown of linear time itself. She can see the story of her life, simultaneously (hence the original short story’s title). Suddenly, it’s not just grief, but a heartbreaking acknowledgment of a sacrifice Louise has yet to fully make. The film doesn’t really come out and say this, necessarily — though her final/future interaction with the Chinese general is a bit of Doctor Who-inspired time looping — which may baffle some audiences who came in looking for a more straightforward narrative. But Villeneuve plays fair. It’s all there, waiting to be understood. Even the opening narration.
When watching the film, I became quickly annoyed by the side plot with the soldiers who, frustrated at their bosses’ inaction against the shells’ perceived threat, succeed in detonating a bomb in the heptopods’ chamber. It seemed like a cheap way to add conflict and misunderstanding, and get us into the third act. But on the drive home, I realized what it meant — for of course, Louise isn’t the only one to sacrifice a piece of herself on this mission. “Abbott,” already existing on non-linear time, knew what would happen, and not only came anyway, was the one to leave Louise and Ian their final message just before the blast. While that doesn’t necessarily excuse the plot machinations with Marks and his co-conspirators, beneath a film as cerebral as Arrival, the ending at least re-frames that, along with everything else, in a way that makes emotional sense.
That’s really what Arrival is looking for, anyway. Emotional sense. On that, and on the sheer beauty of its images, it soars.