Let me start with the bottom line: you must go see the new movie Arrival. In fact, I hereby grant you leave to stop reading this post/review right now so you can get to it soon before it leaves theaters. Arrival is a visual feast that succeeds as a film of triumph on so many levels that it has quickly become my all-time favorite film in its genre.
That’s right, it’s better than Contact, better than Interstellar and, dare I say it?, better than my beloved Avatar. And it made me want to go back and binge-watch those movies just to soak up the incredible spirit of hope each represents for mankind. Maybe I’m feeling a special need for that at this moment in the world’s history.
WARNING! Minor spoiler alerts ahead.
Arrival bundles together in one all-but-overwhelming sensory experience my deepest passions and my most cherished beliefs and teachings. Its symbolism — from the mysterious arc-based writing of the invading aliens to the egg-shaped craft in which they arrive, from their number (12) to their special “weapon” (or is it a tool?) — Is multilevel and internally consistent.
In so-called “message movies”, the underlying content that wants to be conveyed is generally sufficiently broad, not to say vague, that different people can get different messages from the same movie experience. While there is certainly room for nuance, it most often seems to me that these messages are ones upon which the majority of viewers can agree.
For me, the central theme of the movie, indeed its singular underlying Important Message, is the Essential Unity of All Life.
The most constant character in the movie — apart from linguistics expert Louise Banks (Amy Adams) — is Time. There are two parallel plot lines at work here. One unfolds in linear time, or apparently linear time at least, and deals with the main story flow of the movie. The other quasi-randomly interrupts that flow to offer a completely nonlinear story in which Prof. Banks’ actions are informed by memories of her daughter, who died at a young age of a disease that followed a course of action Prof. Banks predicted. This “intertwingling” of non-parallel, non-linear time frames never becomes difficult to cope with, but it does require paying attention, particularly to the seemingly small events as the story of her daughter unfolds in fits and starts.
Arrival is a strong story of triumph: love over fear, brain over brawn, calm over panic, love over time, oneness over separation, and so many others. It is, in the best sense of the phrase, spiritual but not religious. Particularly noteworthy is the intermixture of mathematics and cosmology, in the persona of Prof. Banks’ physicist colleague, Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), who is given nominal charge of the team assigned to trying to find out why the aliens have come to Earth. I found his character to be poorly developed; but he plays a critical role of the alternate timeline, so the director (Denis Villeneuve) can perhaps be forgiven for not finding a way for him to be more interesting and complex.
The writing is crisp, and I found it enjoyable purely as a writer. But I went to this film with my good buddy and ardent film buff Paul Jimerson, and came away with a deeper appreciation for the visual artistic component of the film. Particularly the scenes in which the two main characters encounter the aliens are so excruciatingly minimalist and well drawn that they are practically worth the price of admission in themselves. Paul might say they are.
I would be remiss here if I didn’t make at least a passing comment about the performance of one of my favorite character actors of all time, Forest Whitaker. As the Army colonel in charge of the expedition to the alien craft, he manages to blend authoritarianism and understanding, a need to follow the rules and a curiosity about what happens if he doesn’t. In other words, typical Whitaker.
OK, enough commentary already. Hundreds of people of Artie reviewed this movie, and not sure I’ve got much original to add to what they’ve said. Is often the case, I’m stunned by reviews that did not give this movie high marks for reasons seem to me to be pedestrian and trivial. Still, a great many reviewers saw what I saw, heard what I heard, and saw what I thought. So let’s make a deal. I’ll stop writing if you’ll stop reading and just go watch it.