It would be the laziest of critical clichés to compare Arrival to 2001: A Space Odyssey (as many others have done) because outside of the obvious visual inspirations—clean, modernist lines, symmetrical framing—there isn’t much similarity between the two films thematically. 2001 is about humanity’s listlessness and inconsequential place in the universe, at threat of being overtaken by higher consciousness and even by our own machines. Arrival is about humanity’s place on its own Earth, and about the philosophical problems associated with making contact with an entirely different species. Thematically, this is much closer to Andrei Tarkovsky’s legendary Solaris; that too is a film about humans making contact with alien consciousness and attempting to understand it. However, whereas that film finds human nature every bit as ultimately confusing and unknowable as alien nature, Arrival comes to the conclusion that we are capable of understanding our own nature.
Such a positive and affirmative solution can come across as lazy, but then again this is a film built to be crowd-pleasing whilst being moderately philosophical, not overly ‘difficult’ in its head-scratching possibilities. The story goes that 12 huge oval-shaped alien structures appear in various places across the Earth, with aliens inside attempting to converse with the human race. Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a world-renowned linguist, is tracked down by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) and persuaded to join the research team attempting to decipher the aliens’ language, alongside theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner). Whilst they are investigating the alien structure in Montana, countries all around the world are joined in collectively trying to decipher what’s going on in an unprecedented level of international co-operation. Eventually, Louise and Ian make a major breakthrough in communication, making the first steps towards deciphering the alien language, built out of circular symbols. At the same time however, Russia and China become increasingly paranoid that the aliens have more sinister purposes, and decide to mobilise their militaries instead, putting our protagonists at a deadlock.
At the same time as it preaches the value of humanist understanding and openness, Arrival subtly becomes a prime example of American Exceptionalism in cinema; why, of course it’s those bad egg Chinese and Russians that threaten to destabilise world peace and co-operation, and any similarly militaristic movement by the US is always simply a reaction by the powers that be to defend the great American people. Of course it’s the valiant, hard-working Americans who eventually solve all humanity’s problems.
If I’m making Arrival sound like a propaganda piece, don’t be deterred; this still functions as a finely-crafted sci-fi film, built on solid ground with ideas and character in the script, and then executed superbly by director Denis Villeneuve and his cast and crew. Much like last year’s hit thriller, Sicario, Arrival shows a fascination with professionals doing their job, although in this case they are scientists rather than morally ambiguous drug cops. Asides such as romance and personal trauma are kept in dreamlike Terence Malick-riffing flashback sequences, rather than being central to the main arc, thus relieving the film of having to crowbar in banal subplots designed to flesh out the characters in place of allowing the action to develop them. It’s an admirable balance, and the film’s major players all put in excellent work. Amy Adams’ onscreen aura of intelligence and detachment means she’s completely suited to the role, and Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker are equally up to the task.
There are issues however; it does overreach into Terence Malick territory towards the end, with a rather melodramatic approximation of his style as well as a final plot twist which is blatant deus ex machina. But at the same time, the first two-thirds of the film are rather excellent, a finely-tuned and well thought-out discussion of the value and meaning of language, and how we might try to find out how to communicate with non-human species. Arrival is philosophical, although not in quite the as in-depth a way as Solaris (Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind is maybe a closer approximation).
One particular moment from Renner’s character has stuck with me since viewing the film; he notes the theory learning a new language can rewire a brain. Language is not simply a set of words to denote meaning, but a whole construction of understanding the world. Opening yourself up to that might well be crucial to becoming a more open, empathetic human being, and indeed that is Arrival’s primary takeaway. Now, how many of those who voted furiously for UKIP, Brexit, and Donald Trump, speak any language other than English?