Review of Arrival

Summary: Arrival is a thoughtful and dramatic movie that’s really worth seeing. It’s a “smart” alien invasion story. If you like introspective science fiction like Interstellar or Contact, then I think you’ll enjoy this one too. Bonus for folks interested in linguistics.

Science Fiction is a medium unlike many others because if often attempts to deliver a philosophical message to an audience despite the trappings of futuristic or cosmic themes. I’d argue that these poignant themes are emphasized because of the way that they ground the audience in spite of the extraordinary.

You wouldn’t always expect that. On Netflix and other video collections, the majority of Science Fiction stories focus on action, fantasy or horror. But there are a few that stand because they try to elevate the human experience to the above and beyond.

Arrival stands with such science fiction films as:

  • Interstellar (for the epic and emotional climax)
  • 2001: a Space Odyssey (for the existential observations about humanity)
  • Contact (for the unique take on interacting with alien beings)
  • Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (for the themes of memory and nostalgia)
  • Signs (where the focus is often about the people, not the event itself)

It also reminded me of Jacob’s Ladder, but for mixing anguish and loss with whatever genre it was.

All of these films tap into something primal about human emotion and existentialism. Memory, nostalgia, loss, anguish and fear. Unlike horror movies, where these feelings often (but not always) are detrimental to the protagonists’ fate, films like Arrival are about how these feelings elevate us and make us stronger. Human emotional vulnerability ultimately saves.

Arrival is a smart film, but not pretentious. All of the characters seem unsure of themselves; they all doubt and fear their own understanding of what’s happening around them. They express it in different ways, but because of this, all of the characters are relate-able, understandable. Even the film’s antagonists who tragically became worse because of their fears and anxieties. In a movie all about communication, these soldiers nearly ruined everything because of a lack of it.

The world’s military organisations play a large role, but they aren’t praised (like those propaganda schlock-fests of Michael Bay) nor bashed. There really are good people on all sides here; no cartoonish evil. It’s pretty fair.

Amy Addams is fantastic in this movie. I’m always fascinated and moved by portrayals of characters who are deeply affected by personal tragedy and loss. I’ve seen this actor in other films and I feel that she has quite a noble range. I want to see more movies with her in a leading role.

Most of the other actors did fine jobs with their subdued roles. Everyone in the world is numb in this movie and it’s quite dramatic. The representation of fear and anxiety is like a sickness, not a panic-driven fight or flight.

The special effects were extraordinary. I forgot that there was any CGI. This might be due to the excellent cinematography, editing and scoring. I felt completely immersed in the wondrous visual scenes. The alien design was very inspired and interesting.

I won’t spoil it for  you, but the movie has a surprising twist (not in a Shyamalan way, though) that is as packed with surprise and dawning understanding as it is with feeling. Intersellar made me feel the same way.

There’s an element to this movie that will make you scratch your head upon the first viewing. It all gets explained in the end, but makes you want to watch it again. Sort of like the Sixth Sense. But when it is revealed, it isn’t just another “AHA!” moment: it too is rich in emotional impact.

A common theme throughout the film is the circle or maybe even the tesseract. That is, a never-ending cycle or loop. High concept stuff for sure. I was very impressed.

The reveal of the aliens’ physical appearance, as well as their motives, also reminded me of Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End. I won’t go any further into that though.

As mentioned earlier, I highly recommend this movie. Definitely in my top favourites. The less you know about it, the better.

Reminiscent of the Engineers ships in Prometheus.