Synopsis: When mysterious spacecraft touch down across the globe, an elite team — led by expert translator Louise Banks (Amy Adams) — races against time to decipher their intent. As tensions mount between fearful governments, Banks discovers the aliens’ true purpose and, to avert global war, takes a chance that could threaten her life, and quite possibly humanity. Jeremy Renner and Academy Award® winner Forest Whitaker co-star in this mesmerizing masterpiece.
eyelights: Amy Adams’ performance. its strong female lead.
eyesores: its implausibility. the romantic “twist”.
“There is no time. Many become one.”
‘Arrival’ is a movie that I never intended to put on my radar: I heard the title, found out that Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner were in it, and quickly dismissed it. Rubbish, I thought. Even when one of my besties really wanted to see it, I couldn’t be dragged out to the cinema.
It’s only after an endless stream of acclaim from critics and friends that I reconsidered.
I’m glad that I did.
The 2016 Denis Villeneuve motion picture is based on a short story by Ted Chiang. It recounts the arrival of 12 extraterrestrial ships on Earth and humanity’s first contact with alien lifeforms. It gives perspective on the dangers caused by our inability to resolve our differences.
‘Arrival’ brings with its heptapods a message of peace, but it does it in a very different way from your average ‘Independence Day’-type fare: here the problem isn’t an alien invasion, it’s humanity itself. Really, the picture is a cousin to 1951’s ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still‘.
Its vehicle is a bit different, however: instead of sending a harbinger of doom, a warning, this one’s focus is collaboration; the aliens require our help to survive and we need to trust each other to survive the encounter. ‘Arrival’s core message is that we’re all in this together.
No matter where we’re from.
I very much loved how slow-moving the picture is; it doesn’t go for that action crap and fake tension building that most of its ilk do. Having said this, there was political tension and it was intended to get a rise out of the audience. But, for some reason, it didn’t affect me much.
Déjâ vu, I guess?
In any event, we were treated to a more contemplative picture, as Louise Banks (Adams) tried to decypher the aliens’ language so as to understand their message and intentions; much of the picture was about piecing the puzzle together. It’s only later that the political tensions build.
Until then, outside events were more incidental; we heard about it on news reports, but it didn’t infect the story – which was appropriate given that Banks and her crew were isolated in the middle of a plain. And since they had a huge chore before them, they couldn’t be distracted.
I quite liked Banks, one of the rare truly great female leads: she’s very intelligent, knowledgeable, intuitive, and confident. She’s imperfect, but she’s self-aware enough to know that she is and of adjusting her behaviour (case-in-point, the way she handled her daughter’s homework).
I especially liked that, unlike many female protagonists in the movies, she wasn’t tied down by a man or needed saving; she was the lead character and that’s that. Banks basically plays the part that a man would have had in the past, which is something that still find refreshing.
Thankfully, Amy Adams is up to the part and offers a superb performance, probably the best that I’ve seen in a while. She is really remarkable in this, giving the character brains, fragility, tenacity. The way she showed her character’s nervousness at the onset was really terrific.
‘Arrival’ is a picture that’s best seen with little prior bias; it hold a few surprises that require a clean slate to experience the full impact. In fact, I went to see having read virtually nothing about its plot and having avoided all the promotion. I’d highly recommend doing the same.
Thus, if you haven’t already seen it, stop reading now.
*MAJOR spoiler alert*
Now, as much as I’m a fan of Banks, I’m not convinced that she’s the only person who can figure it out. It would have been nice to feed her information from other sources, too, for her build on. That‘s what cooperation is – not just the U.S. figures it out and shares with the rest.
And, seriously, ‘Arrival’ is about humanity cooperating as one, isn’t it? In fact, that’s the purpose of the heptapods’ visit, apparently. So why did this picture fall into the usual flag-waving trap of such movies as ‘Independence Day’, then? To me, that cheapened its message.
I like the concept of language based on meaning, not sounds, but it seemed unlikely that she could understand it enough, even after two months, to be able to read it and write it ably. Surely there’d be losses in translation still, especially since they express themselves non-linearly.
The picture itself is also slightly non-linear, which is a perfectly fine storytelling technique (ex: ‘Memento‘), but it wasn’t clear to me whether her present was affecting the future or the reverse or what. Either way, she found parallels between the two, which was interesting.
I’m also not sure about this non-linear time thing. I understand the principle, but I don’t really believe it – despite it being the most trendy science fiction theory of late. I’m a believer of the ‘Back to the Future‘ perspective of time, in which there are many possible timelines.
In my mind, if Banks could see the future and alter the present, she would be changing her future. Perhaps multiple timelines co-exist at once, but the moment one’s present or past behaviour is altered then one would branch out on a new timeline, not just rewrite the future.
Otherwise our past and present would perpetually be rewritten by various time travelers – and I suspect that this would unravel the fabric of time itself. I highly doubt that we would be here now if time was being messed with constantly; we’d probably hear a large Windows error chime.
And then… shutdown.
I also dislike that this theory suggests that the participants have no choice in the shaping of their future; even though they’re aware of future events, they make decisions that they probably wouldn’t make armed with this knowledge – as opposed to making choices that better their outcome.
I mean, I loved that Banks decided to have a daughter even though she knew that she was going to die from a rare disease at a young age. And it made sense that the father would look at his daughter differently when she tells him. The film’s human drama was the most credible and affecting part.
But it stands to reason that most people would change their future if they didn’t like what they saw.
We’re not always noble, selfless creatures.
Finally, my big question about this theory of time is, if learning the heptapods’ language gave them a non-linear perception of time, where and when does that perception end? Can one look back upon one’s birth? Until one’d death? Or could we go back to before birth and after death?
Is it only based on self-awareness, or on perception of ourselves in this human form?
These are the questions that really pulled me out of the picture. Though I was enjoying it until the third act, that it had to be resolved with theories that I don’t believe hold much water nagged at me; Banks had to see contrived future events to change the present to create the future.
Hmmm… not sure about that.
But there were other matters that I left me quizzical:
Nope. They just let her wander about as though nothing’s happened. For an über-controlled military operation, they are really pretty sloppy. And they give her way too much free reign, given how touchy the situation is – especially after the sabotage by the other soldiers. You’d think that all contact would be heavily monitored and scrutinized. But she can just do whatever she wants whenever she wants. It doesn’t make sense.
On a more humourous note, I couldn’t stop looking at the alien ships and thinking about the ‘Cosmic Egg’ album cover by Wolfmother; it was strangely distracting.
Oh, and for some reason, ‘Arrival’ made me want to watch ‘Mars Attacks!’ – even though I’m no great fan of it. I guess I just wanted to see a zany counterpart to it.
*MAJOR spoiler alert*
‘Arrival’ provides an excellent look at humanity, and on the many individual ways that we would approach such a situation as a large-scale close encounter of the third kind. For the most part, it offers a very likely course of events, which is possibly part of its appeal.
It’s not a glossy, meaningless picture like much of the popular science fiction crap out there. It’s a crafty film, certainly, but it’s also thought-provoking stuff, the kind of stimulating fodder that will no doubt be discussed for years to come by fans and critics alike.
It’s well worth a look.
Date of viewing: March 18, 2017