Arrival ★★★★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

Time; it's one of those inescapable, universal concepts, one that varies so wildly from one person to the next, but at the same time, it's also one of the most rigid, unyielding things in existence. I mean, just think about it; no matter how rich or poor you are, or how powerful or insignificant or whatever other individual traits a person hads possessed, no one in the history of the human race has ever had any amount of control over the nature of time, as it's a river that only ever flows in the same forward direction, washing away everyone and thing in its ceaseless tide, and no matter how pivotal or how much emotional power a moment may hold for you, once it's gone, it's gone forever, its fleeting existence swept away by that merciless river.

It's an absolutely humbling concept to contemplate, but one that Denis Villeneuve's Arrival dares to challenge by asking "What if that river... didn't have to flow in one direction?", a question that has earth-shaking repercussions for both its characters and for us as viewers, as the film shatters both our emotions and our perceptions of reality at the same time, with its tale of human fragility that is forever transformed by visitors from far beyond the stars.

It tells the story of Louise Banks, an expert linguist who is struggling to recover from the recent death of her daughter, until she's snapped out of her daily stupor by the titular arrival of twelve alien spacecrafts spread out all over the world, an event which leads the government to recruit Banks to use her considerable knowledge of language to devise a way to communicate with the reclusive, foreboding extraterrestrials, and find a solution to the question that the rest of the world is hastily racing to answer: "Why are they here?".

However, as Louise gradually learns the "visitors" intimidatingly complex language, her awareness of the world around her slowly begins to transform, a change which not only radically alters Banks on a personal level, but our perception of the film itself, as what we thought we knew about this story is irrevocably changed. In this, the film uses our linear experience of time against us in an absolutely brilliant creative decision, one that I'm loathe to go into any further detail about in fears of spoiling Arrival any further, and ruining the aspect that has left the film lingering so vividly in my head since the first time I experienced it, as, like the best Science-Fiction, this is a film bursting at the seams with absolutely endless possibilities, and big, bold, thought-provoking IDEAS, while also always respecting our intelligence, and refusing to over-explain or hold our hands through its uniquely, beautifully fractured plot.

Not that the story machinations are the only thing I love about Arrival, mind you, as another aspect that stands out is the positive twist it places on the familiar, time-worn narrative of aliens invading Earth, as, instead of these "invaders" seeking to mindlessly destroy or conquer humanity like so many other works in this genre, the aliens in Arrival instead peacefully visit the planet in order to teach us in various ways, not only how to communicate in their insanely complicated language of ornate circles, but also to get the various, distrusting nations of the world to cooperate in the process, affirming humanity's ability to cross artificial lines such as language and arbitrary national borders, and put aside our petty, meaningless differences for the good of all mankind.

Unfortunately, not every nation reacts as peacefully as it should, but that's to be expected given the history of our species, and I have to admire the fundamentally down-to-Earth (no pun intended) approach Arrival takes to its central premise, as it refuses to become overly America-centric and lose sight of the big geo-political picture amidst its mostly single location narrative, as it takes an undeniably plausible look at how the various nations of the Earth would likely react to this scenario. In this way, the film plays out a bit like a thinking man's version of Independence Day (a particularly apt bit of irony, seeing as how Arrival was released the same year as a mostly irrelevant sequel to that film), as it contrasts alien invasion films of the past with a more thoughtful take on a “first contact” scenario, a fundamentally optimistic, forward-looking one, which succeeds in making you feel like there's hope for the future of the human race, if we could all just start working together as a species for once.

Finally, Arrival excels as a fundamentally overwhelming experience, in both a sensory sense as well as an emotional one, as it takes a cold, sometimes outright menacing tone, one that perfectly captures the terrifying beauty of making such contact, whether it be the grey, sterile, manmade environments that seem just as alien as the ones that were actually built by the aliens, Jóhann Jóhannsson's foreboding, avant garde score, or the sight of the massive, oval-shaped craft eclipsing the Montana landscape like the black monolith in a certain other Sci-Fi film, while also managing to balance that coldness with a strong emotional warmth, as the film's slow pacing and initially detached, subdued style eventually gives way, as the characters are forever changed by the world-shattering revelations brought about by their experiences, their inner emotional barriers completely demolished in the process.

And, as Max Richter's beautiful composition "On The Nature Of Daylight" begins to play at the end, Arrival achieves the minor miracle of touching our hearts just as much as it's stimulated our minds, as we catch fleeting glimpses of intimate, defining moments in the characters' lives, past, present, and future all blending together into an absolutely overwhelming, heartbreaking kaleidoscope of imagery and emotion, one that I will never, ever forget as long as I live; they have arrived, indeed.

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