SciFi Month Movie Special: Arrival

Movie poster: Arrival (Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forrest Whitaker)I always intended to occasionally blog about movies in between the books, but my cinema-going has taken a battering from insane London ticket prices and an avalanche of lazy and uninspiring Hollywood movie (re-)making. But Arrival tempted me to invest my pennies on a rainy day to celebrate cerebral scifi for SciFi Month.

Arrival ticked lots of boxes for me right off the bat: it’s not a remake; it’s not part of a franchise; it doesn’t involve superheroes (I used to get excited about superheroes, but that wore off a long time ago); it’s about first contact; and it’s got a cast that suggests interesting rather than screaming blockbuster. Beyond that, I knew practically nothing about it – I’d seen a teaser trailer, no more. Had I done a bit of research, I might have achieved a fever pitch of excitement. I’m glad I didn’t. With no expectations, I was wide open to absorb the gorgeous aesthetic and the haunting score.

Arrival sets out its stall quickly. We open with a montage and a voice-over: we meet our heroine Dr Louise Banks (Amy Adams) as an apparently single mother, musing about beginnings and endings as her daughter grows up in a rapid sequence of warm shots suffused with the fuzzy glow of memories. When her teenage daughter dies of a rare disease in an early gut punch reminiscent of Up, the colours leach away to leave us in a cool, sharp-edged ‘now’ of Scandinavian minimalism and straight lines.

And then everything slows down, so that you can relish those spectacular visuals and take the time to feel as much as watch the emerging narrative. Banks is an isolated figure, clinging to her job at the university as her world tilts unrecognisably. She alone continues to show up to class after 12 alien ships appear simultaneously in 12 countries around the globe, her muted reaction in contrast to the panic and civil unrest this provokes.

When Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) shows up asking her to translate a tape of resonant alien noises, she insists she’ll need face to face contact to make headway. She persuades him with a linguistic gambit that could be a throwaway joke, but this isn’t that sort of film. It consistently champions the twin ideas that clear communication overcomes irreconcilable differences and that how we speak shapes how we think (Banks is aghast to learn that the Chinese are conversing through the medium of games, inevitably shading all communication in terms of victory or defeat).

That said, for a film about communication, there’s often remarkably little dialogue: it frequently relies on body language and minute facial expressions to convey the broader context of exhaustion, frustration, excitement and hope. Consequently, the film sits heavily on Amy Adams’s slender shoulders and relies on just how well her face rewards lingering close-ups and conveys emotion. As Louise works around the clock, she is haunted – and confused – by memories of her daughter’s brief life. She is both fragile in her grief and immensely strong in her passion to make contact and avert conflict.

Co-star Jeremy Renner puts in a wonderfully warm-hearted turn as physicist Ian Donnelly, frustrated in a professional capacity, but admirably willing to put aside his ego and act as amanuensis to help Banks get them talking. His performance eschews Hollywood stereotypes of remote or arrogant scientists in favour of portraying a smart, protective, funny man. He won my heart in a classy moment when the team entered the spaceship, his boyish delight and wonder shining in the dark.

Forrest Whitaker’s turn as Colonel Weber is a conflicted combination of an officer used to acting on intel and a disarmed soldier out of his depth. He wants to apply pressure to his specialists to get results, but is forced to rely on their expertise and fights to give them the time to get results (although it’s ironic that Louise lies to him; there’s subtext here I can’t grapple with right now). He’s a far cry from the military archetypes of a James Cameron movie; the sort of professional we want to believe has their finger on the trigger.

Initial global collaboration to find a common language falls apart as tensions ratchet, but it’s notable that the process begins with collaboration and open dialogue. While this escalates, I still consider Arrival intensely hopeful scifi, determined to believe in our better nature and I needed it as a shot in the arm this week.

If you knew everything that would happen in your life, would you change anything?

However, like Interstellar, Arrival is a big SF pitch for what is ultimately an intimate story about human relationships and perception. The final act revelations makes sense of much of what has gone before (see me twist and turn to try and avoid spoilers), adding relevance to the flashbacks and shifting the focus from global crisis to personal dilemma. Just as it asks what we will risk to forge a connection with others, it goes on to challenge us to consider the cost of love. The result is a heart-wrenching, cathartic coda that I can’t write about with crying, although I managed to stop at a sniffle in the cinema.

Alongside Interstellar, Arrival owes a debt to Gareth Edwards’s brilliant, low-key debut Monsters, Contact and even The Abyss. As these are some of my favourite films, I was a pig in mud. It demands intellectual and emotional engagement, and I think those who approach it on those terms will find it highly rewarding – but it’s also why I think Arrival will divide people who go in expecting more action, fewer feelings.

Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. (E.M. Forster)


Arrival is based on Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang.