Hovering above random locations throughout the world, the arrival of alien ships trigger the formation of a team of scientists who must discover the visitor’s intentions. In a race among nations to understand the alien’s language, tensions rise among the world powers who fear what other countries may gain if they learn the alien’s secrets first.
I’m not going to spoil this film because one of the true joys of it is that, while the mysteries of the film are right out in the open, they are not easily seen and your own revelation is mirrored in the character’s revelations.
Lest you think this will be my first ever review with a surprise revelatory twist at the end, let me spoil the review and say, THIS WAS MY FAVORITE MOVIE OF 2016.
Yeah. In a year that saw the release of “Rogue One,” “Green Room,” “10 Cloverfield Lane,” “Moonlight,” and “The VVitch,” “Arrival” was easily my favorite.
It is quite simply a brilliant film on every level. The problem with reviewing it is, however, that in order to preserve your enjoyment of it, I don’t want to spoil it. To understand why the story, message and editing of this film are so fantastic, I would have to explain such major plot elements of the film as to make those pieces of the film I want to extol, less powerful to the audience. I assure you though, the editing is beyond inspired, it is a character in the film, revealing information and emotion to you just the same as the imagery and dialogue. The story is unique and interesting, giving you the feel of a world wide crisis film with the intimacy of a drama between 4 individual people. In every way these elements shine.
Now to the parts of the film I can talk about more freely. The acting is top notch. I’ve always been a little lukewarm on Amy Adams (“Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice”) (stone me later, ok.) Maybe it’s just her choice of projects but she’s never really drawn my attention but the emotions that she has to convey in this film are delivered so well and in such a coy way, as was required by the plot, That you feel her wonder and excitement, at the same time as you are confused and baffled right along with her, and heartbroken as she suffers loss. Her choice to do this film and do it so outstandingly well at every point remind me, and hopefully some of my more liberal friends, that the Bechdel test is not the be all and end all of what makes a film feminist. The character portrayed here is a fully fledged human being, at the height of her field, bold and competent. Characters like this are rare in Hollywood and I, for one, am glad it went to someone like Amy Adams, instead of being cast with a “higher box office drawing male” lead.
The Cinematography is likewise gorgeous. For a film with so much gray and white, the real beauty of the cinematography is in the use of negative spaces to create distance and separation rather than color or tone. Instead of just cranking up the red highlights and the blue dark to create that baffling Michael Bay look that everyone seems to want, muted tones give way to expanses of space that show immensities by their scale, instead trying to cram every detail of the scene into a single shot and highlight them all in close ups.
Couple this cinematography with a score that is shatteringly haunting and alien and when you see the alien ship your heart stops as you are confronted with the thought that you are looking at something truly other worldly. The reverberation of the musical tones through your chest catches your breath when we enter the alien ship for the first time. The music and the silence play off each other to reveal and reinforce the other elements of the film flawlessly, certain musical tones even being avoided entirely so as not to interfere with the sound of the dialogue and the action on screen.
Before I end these thoughts on Arrival I want to touch on the themes of this film. As I look at people reacting to this film I hear many of them saying how needed it is at this time (Arrival was released near the 2016 election.) That this film was all about not being afraid to come together across our differences and lack of understanding, that we should trust each other and reach out, not being consumed by fear.
I think that message is in there, but it isn’t the one that I found to be the most moving. There were two that I felt and to explain one of them I will have to spoil some of the film so I will give one then the other one with a spoiler warning.
The first thing I drew from the film, is that how we speak about something or how we speak at all has an effect not only on each other or that thing, but also on ourselves. In an age where we quickly say the first thing that pops into our head, carelessly firing off a few hot words in all caps, many times we justify it by saying, “Well they deserved it, after all,” or “Well people need to know about this don’t they and if I got a little angry who can blame me?” But the message of this film is that even if they do deserve it, or if they never hear it, or if you get people on your side, the way we say it shapes the way we think. I would say it shapes our heart. When we speak angrily, we give power to anger. When we type thoughtlessly, we surrender to stupidity. This world has enough of those things in it. Let us be slow to speak, and loving in our words.
***************************SPOILER ALERT**********************************************DO NOT READ IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN THE FILM*****************
The other theme which stood out to me was about the value of life, In the film Louise (Amy Adams) sees into the future and learns that she will have a daughter named Hannah and that Hannah will die as a teenager. There is no question that this will happen. There is no way around it. 0% chance of avoiding it. She decides to be with Ian (Jeremy Renner, “Captain America: Civil War”) and conceive Hannah anyway and years later, tells her husband that Hannah will die, that she knew, and she decided to have her anyway. Ian leaves her, unable to handle the grief and anger he now feels. It is never said but her actions say it; even a short life is worth living. Even a painful death, an early death, is worth the life that was lived.
As someone with clinical depression and a millennial cynic of sorts, this is a challenge to me and my generation that thinks only a certain kind of life is worth living. All life is precious and worth all the pain it may cause, because life is life. By denying a life we may save ourselves tears, money, careers, friendships, possessions, and pain, but saving ourselves from those things costs life and that is too high a price.
I could write for hours about this film and would be happy to say more if you catch me online sometime, but I’ll just leave it at, please see this movie. It is so good and belongs in the pantheon of My Favorite Sci-Fi films alongside “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Contact”, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, “Solaris”, and “The Fountain”. I hope that after seeing it, it will have a place among yours as well.
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