When it comes to science-fiction, I’ve always preferred Star Trek over Star Wars. Now before you start burning me at the stake, let me explain. They’re both great franchises, but Star Wars has always felt more like a fantasy movie to me, or at least more mystical than a normal science-fiction story would be. As it stands, Star Trek sticks closer to the conventions of science-fiction than Star Wars does. One of Star Trek‘s major aspects is the sense of wonder it elicits, the idea of exploring and pushing the boundaries of what we consider to be possible.
I was reminded of this as Jeremy Renner’s character ran his hand along the bottom of an alien spacecraft in Arrival, his face an expression of disbelief and awe. This is something that, to me, science-fiction movies have been lacking recently. Part of the reason I was drawn to science-fiction in the first place was because of this wonder, this awe. It has the ability to make you question the way you perceive things, question your place in the world and the universe at large. But modern science-fiction largely tries to be grounded, to adhere to strict, realistic rules in an attempt to create a story that could actually happen. There’s nothing wrong with this, but in a way it is limiting to the genre. Science-fiction should be free to explore the possibilities and even dream up new ones.
Let me put it this way: the man who invented the cell phone would never have done so if he hadn’t watched Star Trek.
But now, on to the main event. Arrival is a science-fiction movie that centers around the appearance of twelve extra-terrestrial spacecraft at different points around the Earth. No one knows why they’ve come or what their intentions are, so the world governments scramble to assemble teams and figure it out. In the United States, the team includes linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), who are our main characters for this movie. Together with others, Ian and Louise enter into the alien spacecraft in an attempt to talk to the aliens and find out why they’ve come.
And this is what the entire movie is about: the implications of first contact. What does it mean, how would humanity respond to it, and how would it affect the world at large. For a while now, aliens in science-fiction movies have been relegated to the role of the invader, storming our planet in an attempt to plunder its resources and people. In a post 9/11 world this made a certain kind of sense. We here in the United States were shaken to our core. We were afraid of the possibility of another attack coming from outside our borders, and it’s only natural that our movies would reflect that. So in that sense it’s nice to see a movie about aliens where they don’t just want to kill us or harvest us or what have you. It’s nice to see a science-fiction film that doesn’t just end up being a brain-dead action movie.
The movie stays on point throughout, keeping us centered on the aliens and humanity’s attempts to communicate with them. Ultimately the central message at the core of the film is one about human unity. Throughout the movie we see talks between the different landing sites around the world begin to break down. Interspersed throughout the movie are snippets of the news showing people looting and causing havoc in various cities as the arrival of the alien visitors sends the world into a panic. A recurring theme I saw throughout the movie was one of interpretation. Every message they managed to decipher from the aliens was seen as either benign or threatening. Louise followed the benign interpretation and the military/political leaders of course leaned toward the threatening one. It creates an interesting back and forth that permeates the movie. And while you are clearly intended to identify with Lousie, the other interpretation is at least understandable in some sense.
Now yes, there is a major twist that comes up near the end of the movie. There were some out there who were saying that the twist comes out of left-field and was utterly unexpected. I don’t necessarily agree with that. The movie definitely engages in some subtle foreshadowing through the story, giving you small clues about what’s to come. This isn’t to say that the twist should be obvious or something (I certainly didn’t see it coming), but at the very least once you know what it is you can see the seeds being sown earlier in the movie.
All in all, I felt that Arrival was a great movie. One of the major criticisms I expect people to have about it relates to the characters. I can see some people out there being upset that there isn’t a whole lot of character depth to the movie. But I don’t think it was necessary. The movie is about humanity as a whole, and spending too much time delving into one or two characters would have taken away from that I think. That being said, I do wish Jeremy Renner’s character would have been fleshed out a bit more, as he is the co-star of the movie.
The only major critique I have of the movie is that I felt like certain things could have been handled better. There’s a bit later on involving rogue soldiers that, while it impacts the way the rest of the movie plays out, isn’t addressed very well. It just happens and then no one really talks much about it. Along with that there are cutaway scenes involving Lousie’s daughter that don’t seem to have much purpose during the beginning half or so of the movie. The movie starts with one of these, and it’s a very powerful opening, but after that it just crops up every now and then without much rhyme or reason to it until later on.
In the end, Arrival is a great treat for fans of science-fiction. It tackles some big, looming questions in the wake of humanity’s first contact with an alien race and it forces us to confront the troubling aspect of the division among humans. The message of unity certainly comes at an appropriate time considering the volatile nature of this past election cycle. And the movie is smart. It doesn’t treat you like an idiot or bash you over the head with its themes (even though they are clear-cut). It might be a little slow-paced for some people, but true science-fiction isn’t just about guns and explosions. It’s about human beings. It’s about the possibilities of the future.
In a way, science-fiction is the story of us.
“It is above all by the imagination that we achieve perception and compassion and hope.” – Ursula K. Guin
Thanks for reading! Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week.
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