Wow, a sci-fi film that I actually enjoyed has been released.
Arrival is thought-provoking without the need for the overused frenzy of cinematic tools featured in every other sci-fi (awful visual effects and masculine heroes included). Instead, Arrival takes an academic approach, exploring the power of language – something that fascinates me.
Dennis Villeneuve considers the political outcome and the possible reaction of humanity when forced to put aside their opposing opinions and look at the bigger picture.
And thank God he does. The film is a lot more realistic than any sci-fi I’ve ever seen before, forcing the question: ‘what WOULD happen in the 21st century if aliens landed?’ – not much probably. Yes, there would be anxious curiousity but in a bystander world where people choose to capture catastrophic events on their iPhones rather than calling for help, the overplayed chaos we usually see dominate this genre probably isn’t the reality.
In Arrival, we see Linguistics professor, Dr. Louise Brown (Amy Adams) walk into a pretty much empty lecture room. This is nothing too out of the ordinary; I’ve seen emptier theatre halls the morning after university’s student night. As the seconds pass, an onslaught of phone notifications and emails echo around the room as the news breaks. It’s very easy to imagine being in this situation; the worldwide discovery of a real-life revelation would be almost immediate.
This adds an emotional effect, allowing us to witness the aliens’ introduction alongside the characters while feeling the on-screen anxiety. There is no dramatic ‘arrival’; the aliens don’t land SLAP BANG WHALLOP on the planet and onto our screens. However, in the minutes leading up to our first sighting of the ship, we can consider how the everyday world would change and our reaction to this.
Louise’s patient sigh in response to her mother echoes my probable reaction in this situation: ‘Mom, please don’t bother with that channel… those people are idiots’ (take that, Fox News).
Every 18 hours the hole of the ship opens and humanity stares into the threat of the unknown. There’s some great visuals as the camera hones in on Louise’s face, emphasising her anxiety as her eyes silently speak her fear. Louise (like the real-life Adams taking on this film) is coming face to face with the biggest opportunity of her career and therefore she naturally approaches it with caution.
Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) asks the question on everyone’s lips: ‘Do they come in peace?’
The established professor’s enlightening response unravels her plan to communicate with the aliens, baffling the colonel and audience alike with her linguistic prowess. But most importantly, it reiterates one thing: this could happen. It makes sense. Arrival is light years away from the farfetched fantasies of previous sci-fi films.
My favourite line of the film is uttered by physicist, Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) as he quotes Louise’s own work: “Language is the foundation of civilisation… it’s the first weapon.” Words, dialects, accents and languages fascinate the hell out of me and this statement really touched a personal heartstring. Words define us. They make us who we are. They not only make us human but they reveal our intentions. And if you need another example that highlights the power of words just read the biblical story about the Tower of Babel.
A strong feeling of frustrated uselessness is portrayed on a number of levels throughout the film. There’s no super-advanced technology that allows us to communicate with the aliens. Neither is there a supersonic force that enables us to defeat them at will. Humanity is rendered defenceless and its this vulnerability that is explored. Villeneuve strips back all sci-fi expectations and keeps it to what we know: guns and trucks.
However, despite the military taking charge, they opt to reach out to academics rather than rely on manpower, choosing people who look to resolve over those who wish to obliterate. This message is especially poignant in the current political climate. We need to resolve our differences instead of judging and seeking to overcome – a message that needs promoting more than ever heading into 2017 after the most disheartening year of my life.
If you’re looking for a film action-packed with powerful presidential speeches, a bombardment of military attacks and eventual victory brought about by a series of explosions and deaths, you may want to revert to sci-fi classics. Arrival will entertain those who enjoy a more cerebral experience; there isn’t an overload of characters and subplots, just one main character using her expertise to find a solution to a possible conflict. It’s about listening, saying the right words at the right time while considering the context and social background of the situation. Something that the world would benefit from taking on board.