Film Review: Arrival
“We’re all traveling through time together, every day of our lives. All we can do is do our best to relish this remarkable ride.”- About Time (2013)
There is a delicate balance to the science-fiction film formula. On one hand, the filmmakers have to keep the audience engaged with the concepts and principles the writers want to use. On the other, they also want to entertain. Science-fiction is a marriage between intellect and imagination. However, that relationship can be thrown out of balance with too much science or too much fiction. Keeping the balance in the formula and the genre is important, but the most important aspect of science-fiction is rarely discussed: the human element. People. Humanity. Good science-fiction movies have as much to do with the meta-theatrical and thematic elements as the film narrative. Great science-fiction movies engage the mind and the soul. Arrival, ostensibly a movie about aliens, language, and the experience of time, meets and exceeds the genre conventions to enter that realm of great science-fiction as a movie with meaning and message. At its heart, Arrival is a haunting and melancholy love-story about human beings and our most intimate relationships.
Intimacy and communication are central to Arrival’s plot and its grander message. Human beings cannot operate entirely alone. We are social creatures by nature and in practice. Regardless of personality, every person desires to have another person with whom they can confide and share all their greatest hopes, wildest dreams, deepest fears, and most powerful anxieties. Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is a linguist. Her basic premise as a scholar is that language and communication are the building blocks of civilization. Language is powerful, important, and complicated. Words and symbols can convey multiple meanings. Word order, choice, and structure can drastically change a thought or idea. How we choose to share our thoughts and feelings, as well as what we share, is the basis of intimacy. Likewise, a failure to communicate and understand causes relationships and civilization to break down. When the Chinese government orders its scientists and teams studying the aliens to cease communication with the other nations, tension and anxiety runs high. The expectation is that the Chinese will open fire on the alien craft, and the rest of the planet will follow suit in fear of possible retaliation from the aliens. In a key moment, Louise is able to talk the Chinese general down by calling him on his private cellular number, highly privileged information, and tells him what his wife’s dying words were. Intimacy, the trust and closeness and the familiarity that comes with it, not only saves the planet but drives the film.
Louise and her relationship with her daughter, Hannah, ground the entirety of Arrival in the most basic and relatable human manner. What is the most intimate and, at least in conservative circles, the most sacred relationship on earth? The relationship between parent, specifically mother, and child. Who brings the child into the world? The mother. Who cares for the child during his or her most vulnerable times? The mother. Who imprints and impresses upon the child his or her first lessons and introduces them to the world? The mother. Who does a child need to survive? The mother. From whom does a child first experience love? The mother. No matter where a child is born, be it in the United States to Sub-Saharan Africa, the child can survive on and has access to the same thing. Mother’s milk. If the reader will forgive a bit of extrapolation, consider the central depiction in medieval art in Europe. Go to the Louvre, and on the upper levels in the grand viewing halls, Madonna and Child is displayed over and over again. Regardless of what one thinks about the veracity of Christian belief and imagination, there is an indelible mark on the Western psyche about the relationship between mother and child. Mary, the Mother of Jesus’ relationship with her son is considered one of the most special and sacred things in Christian scripture. The sacredness of that mother and child relationship is part of the deepest fabric of Western culture. Why do conservatives consider abortion to be an assault on civilization and indefensible? Why does their argument against abortion have such a deep emotional appeal? See above. Louise watches her child grow up, love her, hate her, and tragically die. This relationship is the point and purpose of Arrival and without it, the film has no meaning.
The grander message from Arrival is very similar to the message from Interstellar (2014) and About Time (2013). Each deals with experiencing time in some form or fashion, be it gravity and relativity (Interstellar), reliving your past days again (About Time), or having memories of the future (Arrival). All of these films ground their time travel in love. Love is the one thing that connects across time and space. Specifically, the love between parents and children. Interstellar argues that love will save humanity. About Time argues that we should spend each day as if we were experiencing it for a second time, to enjoy the details and little things as something extraordinary. Arrival sees time and memory as a gift, albeit a bittersweet one. Louise has memories of her daughter, birth to death, that have not happened yet. That knowledge breaks her future husband, that Louise knows their daughter is going to die and there is nothing they can do to prevent it. The film does not say specifically why their marriage will fail, whether it is the relentlessness of the disease or that Louise knew years before and was reluctant to tell him. But, Louise determines that each moment is even more precious and powerful knowing what she knows. Time is tragic and beautiful and therefore memory is bittersweet.
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Arrival could easily have been a fairly dry, if beautifully shot and well-acted movie about linguistics and crisis. Instead, the filmmakers’ willingness to ground the film in love and the parent-child relationship elevates the film into the upper echelons of the genre. It is a melancholy, moving, and beautiful portrait of human love and the importance of intimacy. One of my favorite visual flourishes of storytelling is how the images seem to shimmer or fade occasionally throughout. The effect is to blur the clarity of memory and events as Louise experiences and remembers them. The clearest images in the film are the most powerful and meaningful moments for Louise: moments with her daughter and interactions with the aliens. It is superb filmmaking. Villenueve deserves an Oscar nomination for this film. The sound design is equally powerful and haunting, again adding to the melancholy tone of the film. Johann Johannson equally deserves a nomination. The cast is excellent, without a poor choice in casting or performance anywhere in my mind. If you enjoy science-fiction films, you have to see this movie. If you do not enjoy science-fiction, I still recommend the movie.
4.5 stars out of 5.