Each day, I passed an ancient wall,
And, written on its face,
Were symbols of an arcane scrawl
Seen only in that place.
They sometimes gave me déjà vu,
But what they meant nobody knew.
One day, I met a stranger there,
Mysterious and odd,
Who offered me the talent rare
To read the wall’s façade.
I hesitated at the gift,
But curiosity is swift.
Although I can decipher now
The words upon the wall,
I wonder if not knowing how
Would change my life at all.
For knowledge is both curse and grace,
Yet neither one would I erase.
MPAA rating: PG-13
I went into Arrival expecting a great sci-fi movie, based on all the praise it has received from critics and bloggers alike, but I must admit that it caught me off-guard. After the film ended, I had to sit there in the theater a while to process my thoughts, walked back to my car, and broke down crying. It’s hard for me to determine why this movie more than similar ones had such an effect on me, but that’s proof to me that it is indeed one of the best films of 2016.
I’ve seen Arrival compared more favorably to Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, and while I recognize some thematic similarities, it improved upon a different alien film I disliked, Robert Zemeckis’s Contact. I was irritated by how Contact constantly pitted faith and science against each other, but in Arrival’s case, language and science collaborate instead in the persons of linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner). While the idea of pairing Lois Lane and Hawkeye in the same movie has appeal in itself, both actors display utter commitment to their respective fields as their characters are recruited to attempt communication with alien visitors that have (almost) landed twelve lenticular ships at various spots around the globe. Before we even see the extraterrestrials, there’s an epic wonder to their inexplicable arrival, facilitated by momentous cinematography and a striking gravitational doorway.
What Louise and Ian find when they encounter the tentacled aliens is a linguistic challenge that seems unconquerable to most, a written language that is circular with a conceptual density lacking letters, syllables, or anything recognizable. With frazzled militaries urging them to find out the aliens’ purpose, the two experts attempt to unravel this strange form of communication, sparking some deep questions along the way. Even beyond the stated debates, like whether immersing oneself in another language changes how one thinks, I was struck by how much we take language for granted. If I were confronted by someone without any relatable language skills, I don’t know how I would explain the basics, much less abstract concepts I can’t point to and call a name. I can’t say Arrival provided any practical pointers if I were in that position, but it’s fascinating in a logical, over-my-head sort of way.
There’s also the natural distrust of a human race exposed to far more War of the Worlds than E.T.s, and further themes of how one wrongly understood word can ruin a tentative peace. It was hard for me to understand some people’s panic, since the aliens’ giant watermelon-seed ships show no signs of hostility, but I suppose we have Independence Day to thank for whatever paranoia would come from such a situation. Plus, there’s the added tension of other nations reacting in more belligerent ways and the potential fallout of humanity’s own lack of unity.
Thus, Arrival clearly has the intellectual side of science fiction down, but as the translation attempts wore on, I was hoping something more would come. I was not disappointed. For the first half, it was basically what I expected based on the trailers, yet there comes a moment past the half-way point that something becomes clear and lands a gut punch to both the intellect and emotions. The ramifications of a certain decision are laced with value and regret, and I found the results to be a profoundly pro-life sentiment, in sharp contrast to the pro-death sympathy of the film I last reviewed, Me Before You. At the time, I felt that Arrival was holding back a bit on the emotion, similar to The Wind Rises; if certain scenes and themes were pressed further, I would have been a blubbering mess right then and there. But instead, the filmmakers present what they want to, and the web of sci-fi ideas and emotional threads were left for me to unravel, with tearful results.
I’ve often said that Grave of the Fireflies is the only film that can still make me cry, but that’s not altogether true. It may make me cry the hardest, but what do other past personal tearjerkers like Somewhere in Time, The Five People You Meet in Heaven, Inside Out, and now Arrival have in common? For me, it seems to be the complex merging of sorrow and joy, events that may end sadly but are not without a worthwhile silver lining. At its heart, Arrival endowed me with an intense and unexpected bittersweetness. Even if its immediate resolutions seem to be wrapped up a bit too easily, its long-term story and life-affirming subtext made it a very special experience for me.
Best line: It would be a spoiler to include the best quote, but it’s one of Louise’s final lines.
© 2017 S.G. Liput
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