Arrival, directed by Denis Villeneuve, has the structure of a magic trick. It slowly, carefully, shows us something in its first few minutes, then gives us about 70 minutes of misdirection before showing us what those first scenes really meant. In strictly magical terms, it isn’t very effective — I correctly guessed the ending long before it finally arrived and could see how the trick was being pulled off — but it’s still fascinating, absorbing, and thought-provoking science fiction.
Arrival is in the tradition of “hard” science fiction, reaching back beyond Star Wars and into the rich literary style of the 1940s and 1950s. Key to those stories was their ability to blend concepts at the cutting edge of contemporary science with a sense of wonder, fantasy and myth in order to tell a story illuminating some kind of cosmic or human truth. In the case of Arrival, that scientific reality is the physical concept of time. Ask any good physicist to define time and as likely as not they’ll just throw their hands in the air. Whatever time is, our comprehension of it as a linear series of events moving in one direction only is almost certainly wrong. This is not new – Kurt Vonnegut explored this same issue in Slaughterhouse Five. A more correct model of time would be a deck of cards, with each card standing for a moment in one’s life, and one can pick any card and spend time there. The future already exists, just like the past, in this sort of model. It’s a crude metaphor, because the way our species evolved to perceive time, which was the most useful way to perceive it in terms of our survival, is so different from what mathematics and physics tells us it truly is. Building new ways of thinking about something as deeply embedded in our brains as time is a serious challenge, to say the least. Mild spoilers — that is exactly what Arrival is about. Understanding and finding new ways of thinking.
The story itself is relatively straightforward and simple. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguist, is recruited by the Army to help communicate with aliens who have recently arrived on earth. Alongside physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), Banks is brought to Montana to meet the ship, one of twelve that landed at various points throughout the world, and begins the daunting task of learning to communicate with an intelligence utterly different from humans.
In these early sequences, Villeneuve uses a hypnotic visual vocabulary, emphasizing odd camera angles that substitute floors for ceilings and constantly shifting perspective (echoing the main theme). The slow, gradual build to the introduction of the aliens is as effective as anything committed to the screen. As an audience, we lean in, gaze through fog at half-glimpsed shapes just like the characters, and one can sense the director rubbing his hands as he pulls us in. The shifting of perspective continues as a visual motif throughout the film, but the latter half becomes more of a conventional military/scientific action/suspense story involving many media reports, military personnel sitting being high-tech displays and Forest Whitaker as a senior Colonel presiding over it all with a quiet, firm authority.
One thing Arrival does very well is how it portrays professional scientists. Far too many science fiction films (Red Planet and especially Prometheus) get scientists completely wrong, portraying them as either power-mad technocrats or socially awkward, narrow-minded innocents. Not here. The scientists here are team players, realists, emotional people but possessed of great intelligence and most importantly of all, curiosity. At one point, a character speculates on the aliens’ intentions, asking why, if they’re scientists, they aren’t asking any questions. Because asking questions is what science is. Science is also about sharing information freely, and the challenges that arise through the course of the film around that issue (governments, corporations and military organizations have the opposite attitude towards sharing information) are key aspects of how the plot plays out. Even in 2017, it’s rare to see such a positive and realistic depiction of the scientific community, so that should be celebrated.
What hampers Arrival in the final act involves spoilers, so fairly warned for the next paragraph.
When the two lead characters in a film are a man and woman, and they’re both young, handsome and single, any film audience since 1895 could predict what is going to happen. It’s such a Hollywood cliche that it’s disappointing to see it in a film from a talented French Canadian director. Villeneuve, to his credit, resists the temptation for a classic Hollywood movie kiss, but the relationship between these two characters is the most predictable and least original aspect of a film so replete with originality and artistry that it clangs like a wonderful symphony with the ending of a Bugs Bunny cartoon. And that’s not even mentioning how anti-feminist it is to suggest that there’s something wrong with a woman in a film being something other than a mother (the fetishization of the maternal here is also mildly disturbing) and a wife.
But other than that final twist, the journey the film takes around communication, time and just the simple old-fashioned thrills of the genre make it a film worth seeing. The performances are superb right across the board, although Amy Adams stands out as the very picture of strength and vulnerability (it would be nice to have a female lead hit different notes than those two, but Adams hits them as well as anyone could). It’s certainly a better film than Interstellar, which touched on similar themes less effectively, with a much higher budget and more bells and whistles, and in this day and age it’s wonderful that someone out there is still making science fiction for adults, rather than teenagers. As much as I love Star Wars and space fantasy, sometimes fans of this genre want a bit more scientific and philosophical substance, and Arrival delivers on that.