‘Arrival’ is the antithesis to the nightmare of 2016
In a time when the future looks pretty abysmal, I needed a movie like “Arrival.”
Do not fall for its marketing campaign. Paramount sold it as yet another alien invasion flick where a nondescript Other has vowed to destroy humanity because it’s just in their nature (see the apocalyptic alarmism of “Independence Day,” “Battle: Los Angeles” or “Signs” for further examples). “Arrival” has far loftier ambitions. Here is a film that values communication over isolationism, intercultural exchange over xenophobia and empathy over violence.
Massive, football-shaped UFOs have appeared all over the Earth. Not even the world’s leading scientists can pinpoint a methodology for their placement. Once contact is established between humans and their guests, little sense can be made of the visitors’ whale-like moans.
Through a joint effort from all of the world nations, a crack team of linguists and physicists have made it their mission to forge a dialogue with the aliens and discover whether their intentions for Earth are benign or sinister. Still, the impulse to jettison diplomacy and fire upon the (seemingly) incomprehensible foreigners always looms over negotiations.
In narratives like these, it’s almost always the strong man who saves the day, or the jaded Navy SEAL or the assassin with a tortured past. The hero’s self-worth is often measured by the number of headshots he successfully hits. Not so in “Arrival.”
In this film, Amy Adams plays Dr. Louise Banks, a linguist so talented that she makes Noam Chomsky look like Pauly D. Perhaps my favorite character introduced this year, Banks commits to understanding the aliens beyond just what they have to offer, providing a phenomenal model of compassion. Adams, an actor always shamefully undervalued, finds a sublime blend between fierceness and vulnerability.
Denis Villeneuve has always been a hit-and-miss filmmaker. His previous two features, “Sicario” and “Enemy,” were uneven thrillers that still demonstrated technical skill, memorable imagery and wild creativity. Meanwhile, “Incendies” and “Prisoners” were David Fincher-lite garbage thudding with self-importance despite having little to say. If “Arrival” were the only movie of his that I saw, I would have assumed he were one of Hollywood’s hidden masters.
Which is not to sell the man short, as “Arrival” is a technical astonishment even without its resonant thematic heartbeat. Villeneuve and cinematographer Bradford Young bathe the frame in earthy gray tones frequently cut by swaths of bright light. There’s a constant sense of discovery in the tensest moments, and the team’s gradual ascent into the spaceship echoes the introduction of the dinosaurs in “Jurassic Park” in terms of sheer wonder.
This year marked the 20th anniversary of Roland Emmerich’s paean to American exceptionalism, “Independence Day” (with a cash-grab sequel to compliment it, of course). Afforded no motivation beyond a quasi-religious desire for genocide, that film’s aliens existed to destroy or be destroyed. Jean-Luc Godard once said that the best way to criticize a movie is to make another movie. Based on that principle, “Arrival” acts as an excellent refutation.
With the recent election of a Cheeto-skinned white nationalist shyster to one of the highest positions of power in the world, it’s hard to not feel an eerie prescience in “Arrival.” When the first answer – either in policy or in rhetoric – to any foreign entity is force, even when they pose zero threat, it’s troubling, to put it mildly, to see that mentality reflected in media.
“Arrival” has a different vision of the future – one more in line with the humanism of “Star Trek” than the jingoistic pomp of “Independence Day.” The most important ingredients are empathy and understanding. Uber-macho displays of force solve nothing.
We must strive to build connections with what we don’t understand, even give into instinctual fear. You could regard the aliens of “Arrival” as analogues to the way society-at-large treats people of color, Mexicans, LGBTQ+ folk, Muslims, immigrants, refugees or any other marginalized group in America, and the message is still the same. Understanding divides requires a fundamental change in the way one thinks, even if that change feels frightening, threatening and, well, alien.
Nate Taskin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.