Arrival is basically what I wished Interstellar was.
I was disappointed in Christopher Nolan’s space opera because I didn’t feel like it was really interested in exploring the themes that it introduced. Yes, the power of love is certainly a wonderful human emotion that has been the impetus for some legendary work, but does it mean a whole lot when we’re exploring the concept of the infinite universe?
Arrival gives me what I would actually be interested in if aliens came to earth – an examination of the impact on humanity. But it doesn’t sacrifice the human feelings that Nolan was obsessed with. Instead, it blends them into the larger goal of learning how to communicate with intelligent life from another galaxy.
Most people know that Arrival is about aliens coming to earth. Most don’t realize that the film focuses on Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) who is, of all things, a linguist. She is recruited by Colonel Weber (Forrest Whitaker) and assisted by physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to help translate the aliens’ language. Meanwhile, Louise is teased with memories of her child that passed away. This tragedy inspires Louise in her communication with the aliens, even when other countries like China view the aliens as a threat rather than a beacon of hope.
What impressed me the most about Arrival was the fact that, despite the presence of the military and aliens, it never devolved into an action film. That sounds like a weird compliment, but it’s something that makes Arrival unique. The trend is to treat aliens as bug-eyed monsters who exist to put humanity in danger. They will be killed in an explosion that means nothing because we know nothing about the aliens or really care about the humans. Compare it to that stupid Independence Day sequel and you’ll see what I mean.
Arrival treats the existence of aliens like the global changing event it would be. People are scared of them but fascinated with them. They want to know why they came and what it means for humanity.
Adams’ performance encapsulates all of humanity’s fears and excitement. She is nervous when she goes into the craft for the first time (the ship only opens during certain times of the day and only for a limited amount of time) but is fascinated to watch the aliens communicate. Their language is also wonderfully original, which makes the film’s themes of overcoming the language barrier that much more pronounced. The best scenes of the film feature Adams and slowly unlocking their language.
The film does explain why the aliens came to earth and, in that grand sci-fi tradition, it’s not for what you would expect. Some people have already complained about the “twist” at the end. It won’t be original to science fiction fans, but the film doesn’t treat it as a new idea. What matters is that the film naturally builds up to the revelation of why the aliens came to Earth. I didn’t feel cheated by it, nor did I feel like the film was talking down to its audience. If anything, it was treating them with some intelligence and respect.
Arrival does something that is increasingly rare in a blockbuster. It has a brain in its skull and gave me a sense of wonder about the world. We live in a time now that puts fear and anxiety above knowledge and wonder. Arrival gives me hope that this phase of humanity shall pass and maybe there is a bright future ahead.