Communication. It’s kind of important. It’s how we understand each other. It’s how we navigate our emotions. How we cope with our own insecurities and fears. How we express our hopes and dreams. It’s the lens by which we can interpret our world and enable us to come to an understanding. It’s kind of important. The language that we use to communicate is just as important as communication itself. If I text you an emoji, it can mean something slightly different, depending on the context; who’s receiving it; how well they know me; what mood they are in; what mood I’m in. Language can be as simple as it can be complex. But it’s through language and communication that we attempt to create understanding between us.

It is first and foremost a ‘first contact’ film
Arrival then, is a film about language, about how we talk to each other, and how the slightest misinterpretation of language can be well, really really bad.  It’s also about our conceptions about communication, and how humans can grow if we open ourselves up to exploring new ways of speaking. But I’ll leave that for you to discover. It is first and foremost a ‘first contact’ film. So the aliens have ‘landed’ a number of “eggs” (for lack of a better word) in various places around the globe. The US military enlist one of their top linguists (a brilliant Amy Adams) and a Physicist (a good Jeremy Renner) to try and shed some light on what the aliens want. Forest Whitaker represents the US military (a less gruff and more stoical officer than what we’re used to, because Forest Whitaker). Thanks to Sicario Director Denis Villeneuve‘s light touch, the film does a decent job of getting us into the story fairly quickly and keeps us centered on Louise. It’s through her that we experience the suspenseful delights of the film: being inside their “ships”, making first contact, and her journey of trying to make sense of their language.
sumptuous low-light cinematography
It’s a slow-burning, almost serene film in many ways, thanks in part to the sumptuous low-light cinematography which lends the film a kind of intimacy we’re not used to seeing in films of this genre. If sky-pouring energy beams and Earth-shaking explosions are your bag, then look elsewhere Bay/Emmerich lovers. In this green screen era of CG-infused carnage, it’s immediately refreshing to see a film that goes about it’s business in a more stately and measured manner.
But there are also problems. Some that I can’t talk about without spoiling some of the twists and turns later on in the story. But for a film about the importance of communication, it withholds information about it’s true nature in way that can feel a little contrived. Perhaps it’s because Arrival wants to be a mystery as well as a science fiction story. It also wants to make us think about what we say and how we say it, but towards the end the message gets a little bogged down in plot details that feel shoehorned in just to give you the ‘aha’ moments – which don’t land like they should. Some of these things could be smoothed over on a second watch, but the ambitions of the film at times feel untapped in their potential. If this is a global story about humanity and the importance of discussion over violence, why are there two gorgeous white American people playing our only heroes? The Chinese are portrayed as the bad guys and the Americans the good guys (and the smartest) which feels far too simple for a film that wants to be more than just an American story.
How it delivers its message may not be ideal, but the message is essential, and that’s what’s important. The performances are very fine, and the weirdness of it all is just enough to keep you on the edge of your seat and guessing right till the end. In a political climate as stormy and scary as our world is in right now, a film about the value of global communication feels entirely necessary today. Arrival doesn’t allow its messages to be crushed under the weight of oppressive action sequences that say nothing, nor does it flaunt destruction like a child with a hammer over a sand castle. It’s a quiet, almost contemplative film.  And its ultimate message – if a little garbled at times – is worth hearing and seeing for yourself.




ARRIVAL – Movie review