“Arrival” Asks the Hard Questions

“We want to forget
until we start to forget.

from the poem Regret”
Lawrence Raab, The History of Forgetting

With “superhero fatigue” in full swing the time was ripe for bigger, higher-concept films with genre leanings. Denis Villeneuve, hot off the hit film Sicario, has pumped out an intriguing sci-fi thought piece with Arrival.

This is not your average science fiction film. It plays at it, the intro feels so paint-by-numbers that I felt a bit bored for a few minutes. That does not take away from the later complications of the film, the discussions on language and reality or xenophobia and the human solutions to such. Arrival asks you to look at the people you dislike, the reasons you dislike them, and try to understand what it means and what person-to-person interaction really requires, how little we know about each other. The film asks us to stop and think of how we talk to each other and what it might mean to someone else, how the little differences in linguistics complicate our relations.

Enter Amy Adams, playing linguist Louise Banks, who is tasked to translate the language of aliens who have arrived on earth in half-egg-shaped ships that are hovering just above our soils across the globe, a dozen of them. Playing opposite as the team theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly is Jeremy Renner, who looks like he is enjoying himself more than he has in years. Both are throwing themselves fully into their performances, as casting-wild-card Forest Whitaker, but Amy Adams steals the show here as a mother who has lost a child, a teenage daughter who seems to have passed from some sort of cancer. This infection leeches into the movie, the sense of loss and a need to connect forming the crux of her character as she attempts to learn the complexities of the alien language. Even when other interesting character moments occur she manages to jump in and draw attention and that, one might think, would be the point. It grows hard to look at anything but her throughout the film in a heartfelt and heartbreaking performance

Renner lives in his own world for parts of the film, evoking both a childlike sense of wonder and a very mature idea of intelligence and scientific curiosity as he begins to put more effort into the translation than in identifying where the Heptapods, as they are called, are from. Charming and fun, he does not fall far behind Adams when one considers a great performance.

The film places a lot of effort into the possible political machinations. Rather than go for low-hanging fruit, given the current political situation and the climate of xenophobia many are calling attention to, the film sticks to the discussion on interaction and language, the way we talk to each other remaining the most important part of the international interplay between the idealists and the military. Some of the most tense and frustrating aspects of the film revolve around these interactions and the media portrayal of such but some of the more uplifting moments of the film come from that direction as well (that is, when those moments aren’t stolen by Amy Adams wildly emotional performance).

Denis Villeneuve is on a hot streak with not just his films Sicario, Prisoners, and Enemy but also the scores for each from Jóhann Jóhannsson who was responsible for the scores in two of the aforementioned films as well as The Theory of Everything. The music in the film feels timely as well as retro and recalls classic science fiction films. It is, quite literally, built on breath in places. Jóhannsson is set to score Aronofsky’s next film (the first time that director has worked with someone other than Clint Mansell) and after this I look forward to the pairing.

Arrival is brutally emotional, painstakingly crafted, and breathtaking to look at but it manages to be human at its core, a heart-wrenching center that revolves around Amy Adams character work and asks one to wonder what they would do, given the situation. It does not provide answers to this question, it merely presents a situation and shows you how she handled it, but the thought-provoking nature of the film will stand for years to come and be remembered for years to come.


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