Analysis / Review: Arrival [2016]

a review by the Crow.

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OPENING THOUGHTS

So Arrival is a movie that kind-of snuck up on me. Directed by Denis Villeneuve, who’s helmed excellent movies such as Prisoners, Enemy, and Sicario (all of which will hopefully one day grace The Corvid Review), Arrival is a bit of an oddball. It turns out Villeneuve has always wanted to tackle SF, and given his work in Enemy, at least, one can see how he kind-of sort-of tends to the genre.

However, that said, I’m always apprehensive about SF movies that are said to be “high-concept”, considering how most of them do the genre a disservice by being… well, shit. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying they’re all shit, but it’s so rare to find “pure” SF done right. It always has been. I like action-oriented SF (and the like) as much as the next crow, but it’s just so amazing to find the sort of movie that puts concept and character above all else.

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Recently, The Corvid Review has showcased movies which fall into that category. Primer and Interstellar have both been solid candidates in this regard, and now along comes Villeneuve – a man known to tackle ideas that don’t fall into the norm.

My apprehension in regards to the upcoming Bladerunner 2049 (to also be helmed by Villeneuve) stands in stark contrast to my respect for the man.

On the one hand, I’ve been dreading a follow-up to Bladerunner, and on the other, I’ve been wanting Villeneuve to go… bigger.

And before Bladerunner 2049 can drop, along comes Arrival. Almost as if it’s a chance for Villeneuve to settle the question of how good 2049 can be in our minds (or how wrong it can go).

So, how does Arrival fare? What does it say for the future works of Villeneuve? Well, let this crow take you under his wing and tell you all about it.


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PLOT

WARNING: THIS SECTION CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS

The movie opens innocently enough: with alien vessels parking just feet above the Earth.

Twelve vessels in twelve locations, but we only really follow the one. The US snaps up the services of one Prof. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) to serve as a linguist at the spearhead of the first contact team.

She teams up with physicist Ian what’s-his-face (Jeremy Renner), and a few others (inconsequential people, don’t bother) before entering the mysterious ship that’s parked over the US – a hulking, looming presence straight out of the opening of Prometheus hey-hey! A Ridley Scott movie!). Visual contact is established soon after, and the crew begin to try and converse with the two alien beings on the other side of the viewscreen (who they decide to call Abbot and Costello in the days following their first meeting).

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Running concurrent to the establishment of first contact and fun with trying to decipher alien languages, Prof. Banks experiences flashes of her daughter Hannah, who lives a short life before succumbing to a rare and “unstoppable” illness.

And the final plot-line is the race against time as China leads the charge in militarising against the alien ships.

What I liked most about this movie is the ideas it explores. The aliens are closer to what aliens should be than the usual fare: truly alien. They’re not entirely unknowable, of course. While their radically different mindset offers a big challenge for our main characters to overcome; eventually, they form some bonds with us humans. At the point where their most stark differences as compared to us are presented, it turns out that we have more in common with them than not.

The movie’s core problem/challenge stems from a very strong interpretation of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis.

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According to said hypothesis (and on a general level, it’s hard to disagree with what the idea posits), one’s behaviour (and by extension) perception of reality is dictated by the language one speaks. With the aliens’ language being wildly different from ours’ in more ways than one (the term “nonlinear orthography” is tossed around casually at one point in the movie, so you get the idea), not only is their perception of ideas and their presentation different, or even their culture and approach to reality, but they think outside of time itself.

And that becomes the movie’s core MacGuffin. There’s no tangible weapon/tool. What there is, is the alien language, and the ability it carries with it to twist one out of linear time. At once, it’s a weapon, a tool, and a gift.

The movie manages to present a classic issue on screen as well: how despite having common languages, and common linguistic makeups, it’s humans’ ability to disagree on the simplest of things that is our greatest drawback.

And all of this is driven by the all-consuming fear most of share: the fear of not knowing what’ll happen next. Prof. Banks manages to wiggle out of linear time, growing so close to the aliens through their language, and she uses her detachment from time to save humanity from itself.

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But therein lies a problem: does the movie ever suggest that time is anything but linear, in the end? The movie never suggests that the events can actually be changed. Just like in Interstellar, the events form a closed loop.

So, at the end of the day, are the events of the movie actually of any real consequence? Well, just as the movie never suggests time is anything but a precalculated set of possibilities, the movie also never says outright that time is as locked in as in Interstellar. In both movies, the characters don’t know about how the loops are closed (or even that they exist) up until the very end. And so, as far as following the characters go, we should be all good.

But isn’t this quickly becoming the new ‘…and it was all a dream’ of SF? I, myself, abhor writing about time travel, but two of the better SF movies of the past few years (and yes, I’m putting Arrival up there) have featured the same trope of a closed loop in time as the solution to the plot.

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However, Arrival manages to salvage itself somewhat, despite falling into the trope: Banks’ daughter is yet to be born. All of Hannah comes from Banks slowly warming to the aliens’ language. The father is Ian what’s-his-face, and Banks decides to proceed with having Hannah despite her foreknowledge of her daughter’s death. Ian never forgives her for the decision, and they split up, which is why the father is largely an absentee figure in Banks’ flash-forwards to her child.

Interstellar managed to salvage itself by leaving open the idea that even if time were a mapped-out route, what happens beyond Coop’s time in the “Tesseract” is not known to any of the characters still alive. And Arrival ends with only Banks being able of foreknowledge for the time being.

It’s still a trope I want to kill with fire, but both movies save themselves in the nick of timeheh!.

With all of that about Hannah said, let me link you to this video I came across some time ago regarding about the problem of non-identity. It’s not so much to do with the plot or anything, but it’s a nice quick snack for the brain.

And since we’re finishing up on the topic of plot: let me also point out this movie’s gravest crime: They stuck a bird in a cage! How dare they?!


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EXECUTION

The movie looks quite nice. The performances are well executed, and the score is nice, too. This is a movie which excels at using simplicity tonits advantage.

The design of the aliens is pretty awesome. It’s a natural evolution of some of the earlier aesthetics we’ve seen in the works of Villeneuve. The way they resemble human hands is a nice touch, and their remaining mostly obscured is a very correct choice.

It’s a very well made movie. Nothing too spectacular, but it does what it does.


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CLOSING THOUGHTS

Overall, Arrival is one of those movies that’s reaffirmed 2016 as not such a bad year for movies.

Having seen how Villeneuve handles high-concept SF, now, and in light of his work up until this point, I should say that Bladerunner 2049 is in good hands. I’m actually quite looking forward to how Villeneuve tackles the movie.

I’m quite happy that the movie snuck up on me the way it did. Good job, people. Good job.

Now, if you’ll excuse this crow, he’s off to read Ted’s original story on which this movie is based.

Use weapon, now.

FINAL RATINGS

THE CROW: 8/10

THE AZURE-WINGED MAGPIE: 8.5/10

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