The following has been adapted from a media review essay I wrote last month on the recent movie Arrival. After realizing that I spent way more time on it than a normal blog post, I thought I might as well share it. 🙂 — All images are from Google Photos.
I like thought-provoking science fiction movies — the ones that require you to wrestle with the plot lines, premises, and conclusions for hours after the movie ends. Tom Cruise’s Oblivion and Edge of Tomorrow exemplify this genre, as do Ender’s Game, Deja Vu, and Interstellar.
However, Arrival stands out to me as one of the best I’ve ever seen.
From the poster, I thought it would be just another alien movie. I happen to like alien movies, so I still wanted to watch it, but I never thought it would be so much more than I imagined.
The movie centers around Amy Adam’s character, Louise Banks, a linguist who is recruited by the United States Army when 12 identical alien ships land in 12 of the most powerful countries in the world. The arrival of the ships ignites a frantic race of countries to be the first to communicate with the ships. Banks leads a team of the most innovative scientists and researchers in America as they try to crack the language of the visitors.
Because this all takes place in modern day America, the viewer resonates strongly with the mindsets and motivations of the characters and the tense political relations with Russia and China. These factors intensify the movie much more than most sci-fi movies because the audience can easily picture this happening to themselves tomorrow and they start thinking like the protagonists: How would you respond to non-aggressive invaders who threaten to tear the socio-political landscape of your world apart simply by existing?
How would you respond to non-aggressive invaders who threaten to tear the socio-political landscape of your world apart simply by existing?
Like most science fiction movies, Arrival doesn’t tell you much in the beginning, and you learn things only from Banks’ first person limited perspective. Of course, you start drawing your own conclusions about her life and about the motivations of the aliens, but these keep being shaken and refuted by cut scenes interspersed into Banks’ consciousness. Eventually, you’re forced to re-evaluate everything you thought you knew, and the pieces fit together.
Despite the high-stake pressure the researchers are under, you get to see them react as humans. Banks gets nauseous and overwhelmed on her first visit to the alien ship and struggles with discouragement over the huge task in front of her, yet she continues her research because she’s encouraged by the team’s head scientist, Ian Donnelly. Their emotional development takes precedence over even the world-shattering politics of alien technology, as you see Donnelly actively look out for Banks when no one else cares enough to, and she leans on him reluctantly. Their love story develops naturally, despite the chaos around them, and it brings the far-fetched technology into focus as simply a problem they have to solve together.
Sometimes science fiction loses the human element of its characters by focusing too much on the cool, mind-bending science, but Arrival avoids this masterfully. The science piques your interest by being both seamlessly complicated but also somehow accessible, but it only seems important because of its effects on the characters’ lives and futures. Arrival raises the bar for the science fiction genre by being a perfect fusion of storytelling and theoretical physics.
Arrival raises the bar for the science fiction genre by being a perfect fusion of storytelling and theoretical physics.