Arrival ★★★★★

In light of recent events, I'm reminded of Fermi's paradox. A cynical and unsettling notion which suggests the reason we've never been contacted by extraterrestrial intelligent life is that the no civilization has survived long enough to innovate to that level. Or, in simpler terms, that the fundamental nature of intelligent life is to ultimately destroy itself. As tech and sciences progress further and further, what matters is how we allocate that technology; what leaders we elect to control it and how we as a populace influence it's purpose. It all becomes a question of what we as a species value. On one end of the spectrum; there's science, progress and compassion. On the other, there's seems to be paranoia, hate and aggression. Seeing as how things recently took a sharp turn towards the latter, Arrival couldn't have come at a better time.

The fundamental thesis of Arrival is that intellect and compassion will be the salvation of humanity. The film deals with humanity's response to twelve alien vessels touching down close to Earth, silent and unnervingly passive. The US Army calls on Amy Adams' Louise, an experienced linguistic expert; another piece of encouraging evidence that Hollywood is interested in painting thinkers into heroes rather than brutish strongmen. The film essentially follows Louise as she struggles to comprehend the alien's language; subverting the combative concerns of armies both international and domestic, championing communication and cooperation as better alternatives. She's definitively painted as the most emotionally addled person on base; as her attempts to communicate with the aliens often illuminate some painful echoes of her past. This emotion is ultimately not a weakness, but a unique strength as the film often concerns itself with how we react to fear and tragedy, and the paramount importance of rising to the occasion rather than succumb to it. Louise's steadfast belief in herself and her abilities is what defines Arrival, the permeating idea that we don't all experience the same reality.

Subjective perception. The pieces are all the same, but our interpretation is entirely unique. There's a good deal of evidence out there that asserts we do not know how perceptions differentiate until we have a word attached to it, for example we may see yellow but until we know the word yellow, yellow is indistinguishable. On a similar plane, emotions are so untapped in terms of linguistic potential. Our emotional spectrum is vast and indefinable, but to articulate how we feel we fall back on a very small set of words to describe them. Once new words arise and integrate themselves into our collective vocabulary, we are able to describe our feelings better and subsequently have a heightened capacity to empathize and reason with one another. That expanded linguistic ability, obviously extending to bilingual speakers, is said to offer a whole other means of perceiving the world.

This is the basic insight of Arrival. That if we encounter another species so radically different from our own, the only realistic way to truly connect and communicate with them is to fully immerse ourselves into what they are seeing, thinking and feeling. To absorb ourselves into their world. To find a different and scarily new way of seeing, a concept which many vehemently oppose to the ends of the Earth. On a smaller, more poignant level; this extends to communication between peoples of different race, gender, belief, culture or geographical location. Empathy is sorely needed. The clarity with which we speak and articulate our intentions is nearly as important as the actual content of the message, clearly quite relevant to the fact that we soon will have an inarticulate buffoon devoid of nuance and composure in the highest and most consequential office in the land. Arrival is a reminder that hyperbole and verbal miscues are sometimes harbingers of immense destruction.

One of my favorite directors, and certainly one of the finest modern artists, Denis Villeneuve has proven himself to be a master of tone. Visually and through musical cues, he constructs such rich and textural landscapes and soundscapes; eerie and very meaningful. The human's first interaction with the alien is so wonderfully composed; so impeccably slow-burn in a way that plays with some classic sci-fi tropes but still innovates for itself to make such a staple scene fresh and original. He maintains this throughout the film, switching from stone-cold sci-fi to powerful emotional tragedy on a whim with deftness and fluidity. I was wholly immersed from beginning to end.

I love Arrival for it's craft and composition, sure, but it's true value lies in it's message; which is more valuable than ever right now. Challenges should be solved with brain, not brawn.. We have the capacity to be great, but we squander it with ignorance and prejudice. Louise's need to decipher this alien language is not unlike our own need to simply talk to those who oppose us, and communicate with those we fear. Words have a tangible, important meaning. This film is a reminder that communication is offers the best path forward for humanity; a shining light in a world of troubling uncertainty. Villeneuve provides the essential, complex and brainy body to this film, and Adams provides the humanity that turns it into something truly special. I need to see this again to more meaningfully address the actual film, because the first time around I only had eyes for the message. It's clear, though, that this is my kind of sci-fi.

2016 Ranked

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