Arrival ★★★★½

I knew a few scattered details about Arrival before I walked into it, enough to be very interested: it was a "first contact" story, it starred Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner, and it was directed by Denis Villeneuve. I avoided trailers and read nothing about the film in advance. You should really do the same, as anything you could read would be too much. It's difficult to talk about the film without giving anything away, as even to name Arrival's central themes hints at some of the turns it takes.

It feels weird to say that this film is a lot like Christopher Nolan's Interstellar, though that was undoubtedly the feeling I was left with. They both feature stories that question the future of humanity, powerful scores, and dense science fiction premises that take a late turn, cutting philosophically to the very things that make us human. But Arrival is intensely minimalist. It is minimalist in the scope of its ambitions, which means it avoids some of the pitfalls of Interstellar's third act. And it is minimalist in its aesthetic. The colour palette is overwhelmed by grey, lending the film a melancholic atmosphere throughout. We only meet a handful of characters, and the protagonist's sparsely-doled out at backstory (introduced in the film's beautifully-devastating first scene) recalls Gravity more than Interstellar. The special effects are very good, but sparing. Even the alien craft itself is all smooth stone and subtle curves.

The early moments of Arrival evoke 9/11 in the most effective and subtle way I've seen on film, not by imagining a scene of great devastation, but by showing the small ways in which we react to an event that changes things forever on a mass scale. We learn from a news report of the landing, but rather than see the television we stay on the face of Louise Banks (Adams), a linguistics professor trying to teach a class for which almost no one has shown up. Phones ring throughout the room as one by one they learn what is happening. She dismisses the class. How do you go on after something like that?

There were points during which I could imagine a Flags of Our Fathers/Letters from Iwo Jima-style series of films exploring this same story from the perspectives of the teams in each of the twelve countries the crafts appeared in. Each of these teams of scientists, politicians, and military are simultaneously scrambling to interpret the aliens' purpose on earth, and whether they pose a threat. Banks, a foremost expert on linguistics, is called on to interpret the complex alien language for the US team. It becomes a matter of interpretation, and, as as with most things, what is lost in translation can have great implications. How do you tell the word "tool" from "weapon?" How do you know a gift from a threat?

As Arrival's narrative tightens in at the end, illuminating everything that came before it, it leaves you with a lot to think about. Both the personal and the global narratives here pose thoughtful questions, but I can't shake the feeling that they might ultimately serve to detract from each other, something that may become clearer on a second viewing. That it made me long for that second viewing immediately is a testament to the film's power and craft.

Though the script for Arrival and the short story it was based on predate the current political situation, I was struck by how timely the film feels. In a week during which a nation showed how divided they are and threats of war and oppression nestle in the hearts of not just Americans but people the world over, a film that theorises the importance of thoughtful communication over pre-emptive, fear-based action seems exactly of this time. Arrival is not a perfect film, but it may be perfect for right now.

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