And here we are, burning through my list of 10 Fourth Quarter 2016 Films to Be Excited About. This is the fifth film on that list, meaning that we’re halfway through it, already! Arrival was a can’t-miss movie for me, personally. Amy Adams is my favorite actress and good, sophisticated sci-fi à la Ex Machina has been sorely lacking for much of 2016. Director Denis Villanueve has already notched a couple of solid adult-skewing thrillers onto his belt in the form of Prisoners and Sicario, while the Rotten Tomatoes score for Arrival currently sits at an astounding 98% with an incredible 81 Metascore. Everything pointed at this one being a true winner.
Adams plays Dr. Louise Banks, a linguist recruited by the military after aliens land on Earth and they are unable to discern why. Who better to ask them than a language expert? Immediate comparisons can and will be drawn to the Steven Spielberg classic Close Encounters of the Third Kind but those comparisons end on the surface. Like that movie (and Contact, as well,) Arrival deals with the reaction to the discovery and first contact with aliens; it doesn’t jump straight to the war that many just assume would occur.
In fact, that’s a large part of the idea behind the film. Villanueve delivers unto us all a film concerned with diplomacy just when it feels like the entire planet – and even our own country if you’re with me, here in the United States – is on the brink of war. As long as words are being used, all is well. As soon as weapons enter the picture, everyone is endangered. It’s a fact of life – of human nature – that at least half of us need to be reminded of, not only today in our current climate, but on a fairly regular basis.
But Arrival isn’t satisfied with only being an allegory for international and domestic relations. Diving deeper than that, the film at its heart is a gigantic philosophical thought experiment designed to lead the viewer to ask questions of him-or-herself that they would have otherwise never thought to ask. The most important aspect of the film to be aware of is that it’s not really about aliens. Yes, the story is structured around an alien presence. But the film is about humanity and life and our tendency to avoid pain at all costs and whether or not that pain is worth it to experience the love that causes it. I really wish I could say more but I refuse to rob you of the experience of discovery that this film will provide you. I’ll say that the question the film poses requires a science-fiction base in order to make it happen. But it’s absolutely a question worth asking that can still be applied to any of our daily lives, whether aliens ever land, or not.
The cast all do their part, but it’s Amy Adams who carries the weight of this film on her shoulders. A lot is required of her and she steps up to the challenge like the unqualified talent that she is. Adams won my film-geek heart in Enchanted (I maintain that absolutely nobody else could have played Giselle with the earnest sincerity that she did) and though a handful of the films around her haven’t delivered, Adams, herself, always does. This role offers her new challenges and she drags the audience through every thought and emotion Banks experiences and single-handedly morphs Arrival from just another alien film into a core-churning experience. Just like Enchanted, Arrival loses its impact with anyone but Amy Adams in the lead role.
I mentioned Ex Machina at the top of the column and I’m mentioning it again, now, because Arrival is very much 2016’s counterpart to that film. Ex Machina tackled artificial intelligence from a consequential point-of-view that arrives simply because of its inception. The impact of such an achievement would be so great that chaos need not erupt in order for anyone directly involved with it to be changed permanently and irreparably. Arrival takes a similar approach to the alien invasion. Should aliens ever arrive on Earth, that’s all that would be necessary for mankind to be forever affected. This film isn’t about ray guns or mind control or terraforming. It’s simply about “What if?”. It’s about knowledge and learning – learning about the world, each other, and ourselves. I’ve seen Arrival described as “thinking person’s sci-fi” and that’s appropriate, but it also feels a little reductive to me. I didn’t only think; I also felt. I . . . expanded.
Arrival is the rare film that I feel has the potential to change people’s worldviews. I can’t say that the film has led me to learn something new about myself because the question it poses is so philosophically challenging that I haven’t been able to answer it, yet. So, I’ll say that it revealed to me something about myself that I didn’t already know and will, at some point, lead to me discovering something new. How can I possibly argue with that? I would love to see this film get attention during awards season. It absolutely deserves it (including Adams). I’m afraid that the simple presence of aliens is all that’s necessary to prevent that from happening. But make no mistake; this is not Men In Black or Independence Day or War of the Worlds. Depending on personal taste, those are all well and good. But Arrival asks us to stop looking to the stars, just for a moment, and to look both around and within ourselves. Let’s figure that out, first. And then we’ll be ready for what’s outside our bubble.
Arrival left me stunned, reeling, and emotional, reminding me why movies are important and why I love them. I can’t recommend it enough.
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