Arrival is probably one of the year’s best movies, if not the best movie of the year. It’s also a movie that’s incredibly hard to talk about without giving away spoilers, but I’m going to do my best.
I went into the theatre with no expectations, no context, and very little information. I had seen the occasional headline on my Facebook feed talking about how good the movie was, but outside of a trailer or two I didn’t really know what to expect. That was a good thing.
What I did know was that Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner were in the movie, and that it featured aliens coming to earth. ‘Course it does, it’s called Arrival. What I did not know, what I did not expect, was such a reverential, thoughtful treatment of first contact.
This is a subject that Hollywood has dealt with before, and as recently as this year. The Independence Day movies represent the traditional approach to alien arrivals – they come with big guns and great appetites, we have small guns but the will to survive and show them that we’re the little blue planet that could.
Aliens are always the same, distorted humanoid shape, they have gigantic eyes and weird, oblong heads. They fly saucers and ships that seems cast from more or less the same mould and the interiors of those ships are always plastered with large monitors and alien languages that we invariably figure out in the end because we always find that one brain guy right when it counts, just before we all get blown to hell.
Arrival successfully – wonderfully – takes every single one of the ideas that have found their way into first contact movies before it and flushes ’em all down the john.
There is only one gunfight in this movie. One. It happens offscreen; its effects are heard, the consequences felt, and the moment is all the more dramatic for it. There is also one explosion. Again, just one. And the emotional payload of that explosion, delivered a short while later in the movie through one line of translated alien dialogue, is more than all of the other first contact movies put together managed to achieve.
Arrival understands that first contact will likely be a fundamentally confusing phenomenon. The aliens in the movie are mysterious, unknowable. Their ship and technology, even more so. Their spoken and written languages work in different ways. The sounds they make bear no resemblance to words as we know them. And their written word bears no resemblance to scripts that we can recognise.
As a result, Arrival’s aliens are alien in a way that I don’t believe movies have been able to communicate in the past.
But while Arrival is about first contact, it remains a fundamentally human movie. And, from that perspective, Amy Adams is a wonderful emotional anchor. As fascinating as the aliens are, Arrival would not have been half as good without her. She brings incredible depth to the struggle of being front and centre, trying to understand the alien language and teach them our own, to get them to answer the big question – “What is your purpose on Earth?”
What little I know of Amy Adams’ acting chops comes from her role as Lois Lane. After Arrival, I firmly believe she’s wasted on parts like that. Arrival gives her a meaty script, a fantastic role, and she goes to town with it, with such seriousness and conviction that it’s impossible not to be engrossed in the movie after the first five minutes.
As much as Arrival is about first contact, it is also her story, and the movie does a fantastic job of weaving together two seemingly unrelated narratives, tying them together in a twist that will give you a good, solid kick in the head. I didn’t see it coming, even though it was set up very early on in the movie, and it was a proper jaw-thonking-on-the-floor moment.
So, really, Arrival does everything right.
It has the perfect lead, a stunning story, a magnificent twist, excellent pacing, genuinely heart-wrenching moments, and a proper ending – as opposed to the now-obligatory setting up of a sequel.
But, above all other things, it instills a sense of wonder that I’ve felt so rarely from movies and books and games and TV in the last few years. Sometimes, it feels like a lot of the magic is gone, replaced by increasingly complicated special effects, increasingly louder and larger action sequences, and a grim determination to milk a success for all its worth until it’s dead and drier than dust.
Arrival feels wonderful and magical and new in a way that movies haven’t felt – for me personally – in a very long time.
So if you like your aliens served cold with a side of bullets, you might want to give Arrival a miss. But if you’re in the market for a fascinating perspective on first contact and are mildly intrigued by my lengthy ramble up top, buy tickets immediately and make your way to the theatre. I guarantee that you won’t regret it.