I was very excited when I went in to watch Arrival, for three reasons. First, the film is a non-franchise science-fiction movie. This fact alone merits a ticket purchase. Second, it’s by the same director as last year’s fantastic Sicario. Finally, as a hardcore fan of novelist Walker Percy, the prospect of a movie about people learning how to use language to communicate with a group of aliens was appealing in a way I never thought a Hollywood film would be appealing.
Percy, it should be noted, devoted an entire section of his entertaining mock self-help book, Lost in the Cosmos, to a hypothetical set of communiques between humans and a group of extraterrestrials. Of course, the Catholic, Southern novelist was less interested in the things a scientist—or lay science enthusiast—might find interesting during such an encounter, and more interested in why the scientist (or lay science enthusiast) found such an encounter interesting in the first place.
Percy wanted to apply a Christian anthropology to non-Christian, modern man, using theories of communication to demonstrate a certain spiritual alienation: we have an infinitely inward yearning for contact with something or someone infinitely outward to us.
I wasn’t so unfair as to go into Arrival expecting the brilliant, fascinating, disturbing, and hilarious insights of Percy’s book. But there was a ping of hope that this film might have something interesting to say. I suppose it did. Sort of.
The film follows Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a world-famous linguist who is recruited by the US military to assist in communicating with creatures living inside 12 monolith-like spaceships that have mysteriously appeared at various points around the earth. It depicts her efforts to establish communication, as the world’s various military powers teeter on the brink of open hostilities with the enigmatic visitors.
As Louise struggles to make sense of the strange ring shapes the aliens use to communicate, she also experiences momentary fragments of her life as a mother, depicted with a Tree of Life-like expressionism. These dreamlike flashes, of course, ultimately serve a larger purpose, revealed in the film’s emotional and dramatic climax, though I’m not entirely certain the story quite got me there. The big reveal was lost in the opaque tone cultivated throughout the film, and I felt a little bit like the characters, struggling to decipher the meaning.
The film was strong when the camera was on its characters bottled up in a room, trying to communicate with the mysterious visitors on the other side of the glass. In these scenes it had a right, bestowed by genre, to be meticulous and cerebral in the vein of, say, The Andromeda Strain. Instead, the actual translation of the alien language, ostensibly a centerpiece to the story, was largely accomplished in a montage voice-over sequence that seemed a bit hurried and out of place with the flow of the film. As with Signs and Interstellar, Arrival’s science-fiction plot ended up as more of a springboard for a character-scaled, personal, sentimental story. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Arrival is well executed for what it is: a minimalist meditation on motherhood, pain, and loss with an intriguing if not somewhat underdeveloped science-fiction glaze. But it did leave me feeling a little murky. Still, it can’t be overstated how refreshing it is to see original ideas get made into movies and, flaws notwithstanding, Arrival is certainly worth a view.