Arrival is a sci-fi movie right in my wheelhouse. Sci-fi is one of my favorite genres, from space opera and adventures to cerebral and emotional visual poems, I pretty much love anything sci-fi will throw at me. Arrival is definitely more of the later, dealing with how humans experience the passage of time and also the social and political significance of discovering extra-terrestrial life. It uses many ideas we’ve seen in science fiction before but they are nevertheless very intriguing as presented here.
Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), plagued by the early death of her daughter, is called in by the government to help them communicate with extra-terrestrials that show up out of the blue. While the world plunges into chaos, Louise makes great strides learning that the heptapods (so named because they have seven limbs) communicate non-linearly. She and fellow team member Ian (Jeremy Renner) develop a relationship of sorts with the heptapods, coming to trust them while most of the world and the US government don’t. As Louise learns more of their non-linear language, her way of understanding the world and time itself changes to match that of the heptapods. Eventually she uses it to discover why the heptapods decided to show up on Earth in the first place.
The most intriguing thing about this film to me is how is deals with time. The heptapods either experience all of time at once or simply have knowledge of the past, present, and future at any given moment, and this is depicted through their language of circular symbols. Watching Louise and Ian figure out how the heptapods communicate is one of the joys of the film, though it must be note that about halfway through the film Louise suddenly makes significantly more rapid progress for no reason that I can figure out. Louise introduces the theory that the language people speak is strongly related to how they see the world, which then leads to the idea that if the heptapods can express what in English would be a sentence or a paragraph in a quick symbol or two, they probably understand time a lot differently then humans do. If a human can learn the language of the heptapods, then they can start to experience time the same way.
The problem of the film is how to depict this new understanding of time. Since it’s something humans can’t really wrap their minds around in the first place, it’s hard to put it to film. Villeneuve gives it a very good try, and because of the impossibility of the task at hand I suppose I’d say he succeeds. There’s a bit of trickery at work; it’s easy to assume as an audience member that the insight into Louise’s life we see at the beginning is a flash-black, but as the film progresses we see that it’s more of a flash-forward. The way Arrival depicts Louise’s new understanding of time is to have events that take place in what we would call the future seem like flashbacks to the viewer, and then later are revealed to be flashforwards. This jumping around in time seems more like Louise has knowledge of things happening before they do rather than actually experiencing time differently. What confuses me when stepping away from the film is do the heptapods merely have knowledge of the future, or have they actually experienced it already? Or are they experiencing it now? It’s not a failure of the film’s form that it cannot answer these questions, because how could it? The film’s triumph is that it’s mainstream science fiction film and leaves you with questions of this magnitude at all.
The film’s emotional beats probably didn’t resonate with me as much as they were intended to. It’s easy to put a dying kid without much of an individual identity onscreen and make everyone sad, but it felt a little bit too morose in some parts. However, I did really appreciate the clues in the flash-forwards that helped tie the film together. The way the kid’s picture was used was really ingenious, as it allows cinematographer Bradford Young to play with depth of field to a purpose. We see it first out of focus, so the emphasis is on Louise’s bond with her child, but when the flash-forward plays out again later, we actually see what the picture is of so now we as the audience start to understand that what we thought were flashbacks are actually flash-forwards. It justifies the shallow depth of field used throughout the film in an incredibly clever way.
I leave Arrival with a similar feeling I had a couple years ago with Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. I initially liked that film quite a bit but later forgot almost everything about it; it failed to make an impact. I worry that will happen with Arrival because on some level it does feel very familiar. Even so, it’s rare to see such a thoughtful and artful mainstream sci-fi movie these days attempting to do even a fraction of what Arrival does. I don’t know if Arrival is a masterpiece of science fiction, but it might be. Only time will tell.
“Now that’s a proper introduction”
Long story short: 3.5/4 stars
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