Arrival – 2016
This was a science fiction movie, so right from the start, I’m excited that the academy is continuing its trend of expanding its horizons when it comes to the Best Picture nominees. Based on the way the narrative was handled, the caliber of the acting, and the dramatic themes, I wouldn’t have been surprised if this movie had actually won the top prize. It was nominated for eight Oscars, winning only for Best Sound Editing. It starred Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forrest Whitaker, and Michael Stuhlbarg.
When twelve gigantic alien ships position themselves around the globe, linguistics professor, Louise Banks, played by Adams, is hired by the U.S. Military to attempt to establish communication. Colonel Webber, played by Whitaker, also hires physics professor Ian Donnelly, played by Renner. Louise makes incredible progress when she begins learning their complex written language, depicted by circular ink-blots. She begins having either visions that are either memories or premonitions about a daughter that is either no longer, or not yet in her life.
The military’s goal is to learn why the seven-limbed aliens, or heptapods, have come to Earth. However, their vessels are positioned all over the world, and other governments have their own ideas about how to interpret and react to their presence. A big themes in the movie is the necessity for all people of the Earth to work together in an atmosphere of peace and cooperation. Unfortunately, with people like Agent Halpern, played by Stuhlbarg, and rogue factions in the military, fear and mistrust of foreign powers hampers this spirit of peaceful coexistence.
In a rather existential turn, we learn that the aliens’ mission is to give humanity the gift of their language which, if mastered, will give humans the ability to see the future, which will then help them after three thousand years. It is then that we learn that Louise’s visions are of the future. She learns that she and Ian will fall in love and have a child named Hannah, and that when her daughter is a young adult, she will die of an incurable disease. We also learn that when Ian finds out that Louise knew of their child’s fate before her birth, he will leave her. But Louise loves Ian and her unborn baby enough that she decides not to avoid her own destiny. It was very well-handled and really made me feel for both Louise and Ian. And I don’t think I would have felt as much connection with their story if it weren’t for both actors’ wonderful performances.
The drama was mostly focused on two things. First was the whole world-wide cooperation angle, and second was the challenges faced by Louise as she attempts to understand the aliens’ language. The romance sub-plot only showed up in the last few minutes of the movie when we find out that Ian will be the father of her baby. There was almost no action, but that was alright since the story kept my interest well enough without it.
As I watched the movie, I was put in mind of one of my favorite films of all time, 1997’s Contact, starring Jody Foster. Both it and Arrival are movies about different stories about mankind’s first contact with aliens. What I liked about them both is that they each hit the nail on the head. You know there would be mass hysteria, religious cults committing suicide, people wanting to break out the nuclear weapons, and various governments taking matters into their own hands without consulting other nations, in addition to the scientists wanting to establish peaceful communication. The point is, nobody would agree on how to handle the situation, and fear would keep the world divided.
Now, I have to mention one more thing, which I’m sure was intentional, but which I feel was a flaw with the movie, meaning that this is only my opinion. The movie was too dark. No, not in its themes or its narrative. It was physically too dark. Very few scenes were well-lit. The sets were designed with very dim lighting. People were often back-lit, making their faces difficult to see, of they were shown with shadows covering half their faces. There were scenes filmed using natural lighting at either dawn or dusk. Other scenes took place inside dark control rooms or dimly lit bunkers. Even the big and ominous interior of the alien’s ship was all black with a single white wall, behind which was a smoky landscape housing the dark and inhuman heptapods. I know this added to the depressive mood of the movie and director, Dennis Villeneuve did it on purpose, but everything was so dim and dark that it made certain scenes difficult to see clearly.
And finally, I have to mention the awesome design of the aliens themselves. First, unlike most sci-fi films, the creatures were not humanoid. They were fascinating in their unfamiliar shapes. Even their gigantic size was captivating! In a way, they looked like the giant squid found in the deep ocean. And their written language was so well-crafted and thought out. They were part pictogram, part Rorschach test, and part abstract art. It was visually interesting and even beautiful. Everything in the movie was wonderfully designed, a feast for the eyes, and a fire for the imagination! Very cool!