There are films that make you think about the precious nature of life, and then there are films that cause you to ponder life in such a way that you begin questioning why you spent so much time deliberating between which flatulence noise producing app to buy for your phone. (As opposed to just buying them both.) Paramount Picture’s sci-fi drama Arrival starring Amy Adams falls into the latter.
As it relates to alien visitation flicks, Arrival is not your typical invasion story. It’s also far removed from the highly stylized action-first intelligence-later science fiction fare typically offered up by Hollywood studios. The result is about as positive as they come. Based on the short story, “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, the Arrival follows linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Adams) during an extra-terrestrial event the likes of nothing the world has ever seen since being introduced to the Kardashians. Her and Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) are asked to help decipher what earth’s new found visitors are trying to communicate and see if their intentions are peaceful or something else entirely. (SPOILER ALERT: Google translate didn’t work.) For those looking for a comparison to similar releases from the past, lets just say if Zemeckis’ Contact and Spielberg’s Close Encounter’s of the Third Kind had a love child, it would be named Arrival.
Arrival has already arrived in theaters, but here is the first official trailer for your viewing pleasure.
To keep this review brief and the audience awake, I’m not going to get into the minutiae of the movie as by this time, three weeks into it’s theatrical release, anyone with a keyboard or a smartphone has whipped up a complex breakdown and video review that is about as easy to understand as the alien language within the film itself. Nevertheless, before I get into the meat and potatoes of why the film works so brilliantly, I just want to cover a few of the positive and negatives as it relates to the events which took place at the surface level.
(*REAL SPOILER ALERT: Minor spoilers will follow, but not in any kind of context that would or should ruin your enjoyment of the film.)
As for the good, Arrival is at its best when its being suspenseful… which is roughly the whole film. The way in which the story gradually unfolds is even more riveting than how the entire thing would probably play out in real life. Granted, that’s where Hollywood’s bona fides have always shined through. The film also manages to be shrewd by not spoon feeding the audience info in an obvious way so as to ruin the twist ending. Much like one of the minor themes threaded throughout Arrival, it’s not about the destination, it’s the journey that matters. On the same token, director Denis Villeneuve also does a formidable job of not completely leaving the audience – or at least in my best guesstimate – out in left field for the sake of being mysterious.
Of my few grievances with the film, sadly, the most glaring deficiency in my eyes dealt with the relationship between Louise and her daughter Hannah. Scenes between the mother and daughter, the latter of whom was played by actors of various ages – babies included – were scattered on screen in small snippets and as a very small percentage of the entire movie’s runtime. For that reason alone, the relationship ended up not having as much emotional oomph for me as I felt it should have. My reasoning for this is not totally unfounded as I will happily explain in full detail.
Unlike it’s movie spawn, in Chiang’s “Story of Your Life” there is no military strife nor is there any political chaos among major world powers threatening to start a World War in the literal sense. While I understand the tension-building purposes for intertwining other themes within the film, unfortunately the mother-daughter bond which stands as the primary focus for Louise in the source material, ends up playing fourth fiddle to the global stakes on screen. This is much to do with the highly edited snippets sprinkled to and fro. For my own emotional absorption, these brief interactions didn’t allow me to connect with connection Louise formed with Hannah. As always, your mileage may vary, I personally couldn’t shake the notion my heart strings should have been tugged at harder with regards to the unique bond formed between mother and her daughter. Admittedly, my lack of tears upstairs may have been a direct result of the swimming pool’s worth of water I consumed prior to arriving at the theater, which in turn started pulling at my bladder strings not long after the film’s opening credits.
My only other slight qualm involved a pivotal finale scene regarding the obtaining of a cell phone number. It won’t make sense for those who haven’t seen it, but for those who did, am I the only one that is slightly confused about how the individual who was giving the number knew to do so? Or did he not know? Or am I clinically insane? Please don’t qualify the last question with any type of answer.
Despite these nuanced negatives and some liberties taken to help reach the conclusion, what truly allows Arrival to deliver (see what I did there?), isn’t on the physical layer, but rather what lies beneath. Arrival is not profound in that it breaks new territory, but rather in how it perceives that territory.
As briefly mentioned above, there are several themes that lie under the film’s hood, but the one which really smacked me upside the head (in a good way) was the concept of free will vs fate in the context of also knowing a predetermined outcome. In life, many of us often ponder what could’ve or should’ve been had we made a certain decision. Arrival takes this internal struggle specific to humans one step further by presenting the option of choosing whether you want to continue down a path you not only knew the outcome of, but also the having the emotional connection to those events as well.
For lack of a better metaphor, it’s kind of a 20/20 hindsight but one you inevitably have control over. In a stroke of genius however, the film doesn’t offer up this seemingly desirable option as a no-brainer. It presents both the good and the bad of reliving option A vs the uncertainty of option B, while also knowing you will miss out on the good of A.
Simply put, it boils down to the age-old question; if you knew how your life was going to turn out, would you do it all over again? The caveat of saying no is, while much heartache could be avoided, there are also many moments of absolute happiness you’d be forgoing as well with no guarantee of achieving those highs again. After having read several threads of feedback on the film (for research purposes of course), there seems to be a debate of whether Louise’s ultimate decision in the finale was done with the understanding that all life is precious, pure selfishness, or a little bit of both. At one point, Louise even admits to questioning how she handled the fallout after reaching her verdict, no matter how confident she was in making it. What makes Arrival brilliant however, is there’s no right answer. (Every married man’s dream come true.) It’s Louise’s ability to exercise free will that allows her to determine whether she wants to choose the road already traveled, which includes all the pre-determined highs and lows she is knows will be waiting for her along the way; versus the road less traveled. A path that provides a clean slate, but one void of the emotionally blissful moments so near to her heart.
You’re all going to laugh and point at me until your voices are horse and your fingers cramp, but the underlying takeaway of Arrival reminded me of a quote near and dear to my heart from South Park. Yes… that South Park. In the episode of note titled “Raisins“, after having just been dumped by his quasi-girlfriend restaurant server, innocent fourth-grader Butters Stotch explains to a group of emotionless gothic school kids why he won’t be accepting their invite to endlessly rail on about how depressing and pointless life is.
“No thanks. I love life… And, yeah I’m sad. But at the same time I’m really happy that something could make me feel that sad. It’s like… It, it makes me feel alive, you know? It makes me feel human. The only way I could feel this sad now is if I felt something really good before. So I have to take the bad with the good. So I guess what I’m feeling is like a beautiful sadness. I guess that sounds stupid.”
No Butters, that doesn’t sound stupid at all. A “beautiful sadness” is one of the byproducts and sensations humans experience on their endeavor to a reach a state of true happiness throughout as much of their lives as possible. It also sums up Arrival to near perfection.