Immediately we are grabbed from our seats into the journey of Dr. Louise Banks and her discovery of what it means to be bound by time. Played vulnerably by five-time Oscar nominee Amy Adams (American Hustle, Doubt), Dr. Banks is weighed down in life by the loss of her daughter to cancer. While a sixth nomination for Adams is unlikely for this role, Arrival still gives a richly tense and starkly imaginative allegory to the coming end times, as paralleled by the inner demons of past trauma.
In her present state, she is a college professor of English. At one of her teaching sessions, the lecture hall is suspiciously low on students. There are alerts on their mobile devices about unidentified objects landing across the globe, each one shaped like a large perpendicular shell. This causes for mass evacuation away from these objects, with only authorized authorities supervising and investigating what they are and where they come from. At this point, it feels like a rip-off of classic alien invasion thrillers including Close Encounters of the Third Kind and The Day the Earth Stood Still. While it certainly obeys the tropes for the most part, creative liberties are still taken to ensure an exhilarating experience.
Why did they land in these specific spots? That’s the question the American government is trying to answer as they conduct an organized approach to interacting to whatever thrives inside these things. Their solution in interacting with this unknown is to bring in Dr. Banks to apply her English knowledge, a highly discomforting task for her, as well as the audience. The unpredictability and danger that she is thrown into hits you right where you feel, especially when it comes time to approach the inside of this vessel.
Director Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Sicario) proves yet again how much skill he has in disorienting you without having to manipulate the screen with IMAX magic, as his choices of framing gives an overwhelming feel of scale in comparison to this unidentified object. The color palette used by cinematographer Bradford Young (A Most Violent Year) gives a stark feel of loneliness in a world separated by language barriers. The stressful sound effects complement the sad melodic music scored by Jóhann Jóhannsson (Sicario, The Theory of Everything).
Inside of the object, the gravity is perpendicular to our own; then at the end of the object, these eerie, faceless, squid-like lifeforms behind a white veil await the approach of human investigators. Dr. Banks leads the interaction with these beings, later named “Heptapods,” who communicate through painting abstract black rings that make up their language. So she, as a college professor, applies her history in English to vigorously study their language, which they call “nonlinear orthography.” The process in figuring out their form of communication is absolutely brilliant and inspirational in how it’s created and discovered.
As real as this small-scale epic feels, its treatment towards the other countries is still rather problematic. Essentially, they are treated like outsiders from America whose first resort is to rage war against the unknown, unlike those in the richest country in the world who rely on communication past language barriers to solve problems. Based on what I’ve seen in the news recently, this is not how things have played out.
There’s also an issue I have with the portrayal of Dr. Banks’ daughter, who is absent for a large portion of the film as if she’s not really that important to the story. If she were mentioned more consistently through the first and second acts, she would have strengthened the conflict between the key characters.
Yet the reminder of our relation with family issues and the passage of time may just as well be the push forward that we need to communicate with one another despite the inconvenience of language differences across barriers. It is through interaction and compromise that we will arrive at where we intend to go.
If there is a specific movie you’d like to see graded, or if you are interested in guest blogging for my site, please email me at Trevor@TrevorsViewOnHollywood.com for your recommendations.
Have a great weekend, and happy watching!
Arrival. Paramount Pictures. Web. <http://www.arrivalmovie.com/>.
Epstein, Adam. Finally, a Hollywood sci-fi alien movie with a linguist as the hero. Digital image. Quartz. WordPress, 18 Aug 2016. Web. <http://qz.com/832998/the-case-for-free-trade-open-borders-and-the-new-global-economy/>.
The Phobia List. Web. <http://phobialist.com/>.