Movie Review: "Arrival," 2016
Updated: May 16, 2022
Last night Masha and I watched Arrival, the 2016 sci-fi film about a linguist (Amy Adams) making contact with an alien race. For the first half of the movie my inner critic kept comparing it to similar films like Signs and Contact, daring it to do something innovative or at least competent in this overpopulated genre. "Oh, I see, they're going for the heartstrings in the opening moments. Eh, doesn't quite get there. Where is the music? This is like Dune but with 500% less bagpipes. Man, this movie is slow. Maybe I'll leave the rest for another night. How come none of these characters have any character? Amy Adams is the only thing keeping this ball rolling. Oh, China, Russia, and the CIA are evil. That's original."
But halfway through the movie, after an awkward transition, the plot started to kick in, and things began getting interesting. And without spoiling the rest, the end of the movie redeemed it in a way that was wholly unexpected, and quite deftly executed. More than that, it catapulted the story into the elite echelon of sci-fi stories that are not just big concept, but deeply intimate on a human level. I found it to be pure poetry.
Frankly, it's a poetry that I found lacking in the reviews of the movie I read afterwards, which all seemed to be grasping at the greatness it achieved while predictably coming up short. Where it was profound and touching, they were glib and shallow, despite attempts to affirm their necessity by proclaiming it "the best movie of the year." It's not a perfect movie, and I don't feel it needs such accolades. It's not for everyone, either. But in my case, I think it will stay with me for quite some time. The central question, "Would you do it all again?" is one that never loses its relevance, and Villeneuve, Chiang, and Heisserer ground it in a character who acts like a real person and not a mere plot device. I am glad there are still filmmakers and writers out there capable of creating works that are this intensely personal. It's all I request of any creator: Show us your humanity. And hey, a little time-travel side plot never hurts, either.