By Jarrod Jones. If you ever want to keep yourself up for the rest of the month, consider the Fermi paradox, a humdinger of a quagmire summed up thusly: Even though the probability that another planet just like Earth exists in the universe is incredibly high — with intelligent life, the means for interstellar travel, and probably our old broadcasts of The Lone Ranger if we’re being real about this — we still have yet to greet any visitors that hail from the beyond.
That absence is called “The Great Silence”, and while there are dozens of hypotheses laying around that attempt to explain this paradox (and all of them are terrifying) it’s far more interesting for some to simply exorcise those dreams of aliens through a blistering onslaught of softball cinema. From This Island Earth to Starman, from Species to War of the Worlds, there has been no shortage of soft sci-fi lobbed at audiences, though most of them rarely bother with the wonder that would come with engaging with our intergalactic neighbors, and even less contend with the quaking existential dread that often comes with comprehending the cosmos that surrounds us.
Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival attempts to do both, and for the most part it succeeds. It doesn’t demand much from its audience in doing so either: It’s shot like a kitchen sink drama and it has a message of hope so obvious that folks who run out for a bathroom break will pick up on the moral. It’s tailor-made for both Oscar consideration and rainy Sunday afternoon viewing. If the film were to share headspace with any of its science fiction contemporaries, it’d find a home right next to Gravity and The Day the Earth Stood Still, and while Arrival lacks the visual chutzpah of the former it certainly embraces the cautionary parables found in the latter.
Visually, Villeneuve borrows from the best; his aliens have a Spielbergian strut about them, the pace (and the narrative) has an unmistakable Kubrickian flourish, and if we can get spoiler-y for a second here, with their several dangling appendages and deep-set brows, Arrival‘s extraterrestrials more closely resemble Lovecraft’s Cthulhu than anything else. Amy Adams, who is tremendous here, spends a lot of time staring up into open space with equal parts terror and awe, and if Villeneuve had but shown her exactly what she and co-star Jeremy Renner would ultimately be staring at, you’d have likely heard their Hazmat suits quietly filling up.
Of course they’re terrifying. That’s one of the galvanizing points to the film. The world teeters into chaos with the presence of monolithic, jet-black orbs (the movie cuts to news footage of riots in the streets and twitchy world leaders wondering what to do next), and each country is tasked with the going-in-blind attempt at communicating with the unknown. (Some are more successful than others: Pakistan and Australia step up to the challenge, while Russia and China are a hair-trigger away from starting something awful.) When an image of the beings leaks to the internet, that’s when people really begin to lose their shit. Never mind that the best and brightest in the world are working together for a change. Once fear really takes hold, this progress begins to fray almost immediately.
Adams’ Dr. Louise Banks is the key to bridging the linguistics gap, and Eric Heisserer’s screenplay (adapted from the novel, Story of Your Life, by Ted Chiang) gives her plenty to do. When the people in charge are willing to be swayed by fear tactics and rhetoric from the mass media, Banks digs deeper, remains calm, and gets into the nitty-gritty of communication, down to its most primitive forms. What’s more, she’s getting somewhere. This is where Arrival rises to the occasion, and more fittingly, the times.
It would be impossible to ignore the subtext at play here. With the most contentious Presidential election now in our rearview, Arrival, er… arrives as the most socially-conscious film 2016 could have ever possibly given us. When the world is screaming at each other, when everyone demands that they be the loudest voice, Arrival reminds us that discord in crisis can only lead to one thing. To quote another piece of sci-fi media about aliens, love, and understanding: “It’s all just us, in here, together. And we’re all we’ve got.”
Directed by Denis Villeneuve.
Produced by Shawn Levy, Dan Levine, Aaron Ryder, and David Linde.
Screenplay by Eric Heisserer.
Based on “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang.
Starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Tzi Ma.
Rated PG-13 because language can get frustrating.
8 out of 10