Since the early history of science fiction, the narrative of first contact with an alien civilization has been mined deeply and well for commentary about how we interact within our own.
It’s a wonderful metaphor, because it’s prismatic and adaptable – a Swiss army knife of a thought problem that one author can use to speak to our cruelty while another uses it to frame our innocence.
The Arrival, Denis Villeneuve’s quiet, sweeping, visually minimalist fable of first contact and examined lives is a lush, spellbinding, thoughtful addition to that pantheon.
A beautiful movie that will reward a mindful watch, The Arrival deftly personalizes momentous global events and our reaction to them, while also doing a refreshingly good job of using harder science as a framing device for its look into its characters, linguist Louise and physicist Ian, as they work together performing the first surveys of one of twelve mysterious objects that have turned up floating near the surface of the Earth, then work to decode the extremely inscrutable language and incredible technology of the beings within, under the strict timetable and watchful eye of Forrest Whitaker’s Colonel Weber, racing the clock to open a line of communication with the visitors before the other nations of Earth turn on the creatures – or each other.
Like last year’s breakout, The Martian, the Arrival is a sweeping adaption of literary hard sci fi about Big Ideas – in this case, language and communication, the human mind, and how they intersect and dictate one another’s shape and form. At the request of the U.S. government, academics Lousie and Ian attempt the life’s work of decoding the language of a truly physically and mentally alien race while the doomsday clock ticks at the speed of the international media cycle.
While hypnotic and moving in its own way, the Arrival may suffer if thrown on the scale of public opinion opposite The Martian. Where Matt Damon and Ridley Scott’s blockbuster was a shouted paen to survival via science, this year’s is more of a study of how progress and the march of historic events fail to change human nature at the core even as they pull life down around us. While no less watchable, competent, or composed, this film doesn’t end with the literal and figurative uplift that brought the titular Martian, and his film, home.
Eric Heisserer’s adaption of Ted Chaing’s novella Story of Your Life is zoomed in tight on the human stories of first contact, and carefully uses its cast as the audience lens for most of the picture. This rejection of the omniscient personalizes the vast scale of the events going on around the characters and challenges the audience to ride with them, wear blinders, and buy in, instead of losing the human tale in the clouds.
The film walks – barely – the crucial tightrope between respecting its audience’s attention span and interest in the big ideas at its core, and becoming so dreamlike it loses its pacing – at times it seems in danger of pulling itself out of orbit with the stately pace and somber visuals that are the foundation of its mood, and while it ultimately doesn’t run aground, it does travel into the well-trod shoals of the dichotomous “smart but detached” academic, but not painfully or implausibly so.
The Arrival is a welcome shift of pace – a bigger-budget think piece that narrowly, but successfully avoids the pitfalls that come front-loaded with the decision to work with heavy topics. It’s smart, projects depth and breadth, but never becomes inaccessible and always remains about its characters. Fans of hard sci-fi and fans of human stories will that while this austere tale doesn’t fight for your attention, it does make a bid for your head and heart.
(media from “The Arrival” courtesy of Paramount Pictures)