Director: Denis Villeneuve
Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whittaker
Plot: When an alien spacecraft arrives on Planet Earth, the world struggles to work together to figure out how to react to the arrival. Reach out and communicate or launch into a full scale war.
Sci-Fis are a tough movie for any director. The great ones of old are buried into our pop culture memory. Star Wars is a gigantic space opera, filled with strange creatures, loud noises and killer teddy bears – it proves how extensive the universe out there truly is. Star Trek is an optimistic look at our future and a celebration of the potential of the human race. Even the bloody actions like Robocop and Terminator are based on current trends that can be shared with the audience through the medium of entertainment. That is the best thing about Sci-Fi; its power to share social issues in a digestible manner. The problem is that a lot of modern Sci-Fis forget that. Guardians of the Galaxy, Jupiter Ascending, the countless remakes of the popular Sci-Fis, try to cling to what made the old great, rather than looking forward and trying to figure out what kind of Sci-Fi story humanity needs right now.
Arrival is that story. Denis Villeneuve has made a name for himself these last few years, making the movies we didn’t necessarily want, but the movies we needed to hear. His pictures are powered by uncomfortable truths. Prisoners showed us that our version of the hero had the power to damage the quest for truth and Sicario claimed that the US military could be as bad as some of the foreign ones out there. While I never imagined Villeneuve turning to Sci-Fi, this movie quickly summarises why he is the perfect director to take up the job. It is a powerful movie that constantly asks us to reflect on our own stance on humanity. While Sicario saved its soul-searching for the final act, Arrival has you scratching your head right up until the closing scenes. Villeneuve’s first decision is to throw the rulebook out the window. It is not needed here. Therefore when the aliens first arrive on our planet, they are not met with a crack team of fighter pilots (ie: Independence Day), but a linguist and a scientist. Do not expect a third act set-piece where Amy Adams’ lecturer finds herself an automatic rifle and transforms into Ellen Ripley, saving the day. This is a movie about understanding the stranger at our planet’s doorstep, not assuming it is here to annihilate us. Villeneuve never even tries to convince us that the aliens have bad intentions. They are kept in the shadows for a beautifully long time, their reveal spoon-fed to us rather than hastily got out of the way. However, when the fear of the unknown (which is half the point of this movie), is out of the way, Villeneuve establishes them as friendly faces. They engage with the lead characters as best as they can, both humanity and the aliens breaking down their language barriers and attempting to build a relationship. No, the aliens aren’t the antagonists here, but the humans. As Adams and Renner bond with these intergalactic beings, world leaders over the world get anxious. A month with these aliens on their planet and humanity have only just learned how to express pronouns with the UFOs. The world needs answers right now, not next year. Even America’s own government which initially request Adams to try and peacefully connect with these new species rather than launching an attack, gets worried about the fact that China and Russia are beginning to turn to nuclear weapons rather than diplomacy. A key moment of the film is where even Amy Adams’ character forgets the term for an argument where both parties leave with something beneficial. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes covered this debate well in 2014, but the discussion is renewed here. It is impossible not to wonder how humanity would react to aliens in this day and age, especially with the likes of Trump in Presidency. Maybe the message to take away from Arrival is that our planet isn’t ready for alien contact.
Of course, like with all great Sci-Fis, there are also messages to read into our political climate right now. Connecting with the aliens in Arrival is more about being open about understanding the unknown. The main threat in Arrival is the fact that we cannot communicate with these aliens. They speak using symbolic circles instead of written words, meaning there appears to be no initial common ground for communication. However, Amy Adams’ character is all about pushing past that and creating new common ground. This can be seen as a basis for understanding strange nationalities, cultures and religions. A Christian might not be able to see a Muslim’s point of view, but that doesn’t mean their relationship needs to be based off of hate. Arrival is all about promoting the line of thought where we do not react in fear to something we don’t understand. There is a really powerful scene in Arrival where the alien pushes his “hand” against a pane of glass to form a connection with Amy Adams’ character. The sudden shock of the movement is treated as a jump scare and, tied with the thick atmosphere Villeneuve expertly conjures, it is bound to cause a jolt among the audience. But while it is visually scary, there is nothing of substance to be afraid of. With that single jump scare, a massive debate is opened (or perhaps not opened, but extended to another level), which resonates with the viewer willing to explore a deeper meaning behind the entertainment. The other big message here is how fractured our world is. Because we cannot truly connect with cultures outside of our own, how can we truly invite an alien species to our world? Because Earth is a planet comprised of several leaders, the aliens split into twelve parties to contact us. The only way to truly build a relationship is to work together, something Arrival establishes as something we fail to do. This entire fact leads to Arrival’s biggest sources of conflict and tension. The gripping thing about the movie is how easy it is to believe.
I do have my problems with Arrival. There is only one prominent issue I have that stops me from labelling this film as outstanding as other critics have. There is a late act twist which I personally believe robs the film of its grounded sense of realism. Villeneuve might be dealing the subject of alien encounters, but the entire film feels real. The arrival is shared with the audience through clipped news beats and the military’s approach to first contact is appropriately coordinated. There is no flashy Hollywood trickery to be found here. Then the movie reveals an unusual beat in its final throes that Villeneuve hopes ties the message together. Personally I felt it stole Arrival of its celebration of humanity. I loved the idea of Amy Adams being a single woman who connected the planet through her decency. The late addition to the story gives her the means to do that, but perhaps takes away from the idea that we can do that. At best, it makes the ending very convenient. We are left wondering how this movie can possibly be resolved and then suddenly this dream scenario falls into the hero’s lap. It was a slight wobble to an otherwise brilliant piece of film-making, which further establishes Denis Villeneuve as one of the most exciting film-makers out there right now.
Final Verdict: Arrival is a Sci-Fi for right now, a remarkable piece of film-making that gives humanity a chance to re-evaluate its take on foreign relationships.