I did it again. I waited until the last minute to see a hard science fiction film until it was just about to leave theaters, even though I complain about the conventional Hollywood logic that hard science fiction doesn't sell tickets. In my defense though, I was preparing for a trip out of the country when this movie released. So my excuse this time is far better than my excuse for missing opening weekend of The Martian. And once again, this film's 94% on Rotten Tomatoes (as of the time of this writing) and its exceeding box office projections (coming in third behind a Marvel comic book movie and a children's movie) seems to vindicate that Hollywood can still make high-concept, hard science fiction films, that people will go see them, that people will understand them, and that those people will like them.
Arrival is as hard as hard science fiction gets. Think Contact; think 2001: A Space Odyssey; think the Star Trek TNG episode "Darmok". Arrival is all about communication, and it offers an interesting exploration of how language influences the way that we think, and how our thoughts are filtered through the language that we speak. The entire movie is about the efforts to communicate with the aliens, while human beings progressively become incapable of actually communicating with one another. There's no real villain, exactly one explosion, and the threat of China and Russia starting a war with the aliens on the other side of the globe is a distant, but tangible threat. This film is slow and methodical, much like the efforts to teach a new language to someone, and it makes absolutely sure that the audience will be able to follow along with what is going on.
Moreso than our attempts to communicate with aliens, this film is about our ability (or inability) to communicate with each other - at every level of society. From individual relationships, to professional relationships, to political relationships, to international diplomatic relationships, and even the relationship between the media and the public.
Arrival is more about our inability to communicate with each other, than our inability to communicate with aliens.
It's difficult for me to say anything more about this movie without absolutely, completely spoiling everything. Suffice to say, the high-concept science fiction stuff is very well handled. This movie earns some comparisons to Interstellar, but is far more intelligent and manages to not be hokey at all. Read on if you want spoilers.
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Listen, Amy Adams has come unstuck in time
Pretty much as soon as the aliens showed up on screen, I started getting serious Slaughterhouse-Five vibes. I'm not sure if the film makers were inspired by Vonnegut's seminal work, but there are a lot of parallels. The aliens initially appearing to look like giant hands - before being revealed to be more squid-like - reminded me of Slaughterhouse-Five's Tralfamadorians. With the introduction of their circular writing (and the idea of thinking backwards at the same time as thinking forward), I started suspecting non-linear time would come into play, and that Louise's (played by Amy Adams) "flashbacks" to her daughter might actually be flashforwards. This brought about the possibility of non-linear time being a coping mechanism for dealing with tragedy, as it is in Slaughterhouse-Five.
To the movie's credit, it was actually pretty good at misdirection. The writing was clever enough that even with the parallels to Slaughterhouse-Five, I was still doubting and wondering if the child was in the past or the future. Comments from Louise about her ex-husband and other such dialogue had me wondering.
As soon as I saw the aliens, I started getting Slaughterhouse-Five vibes.
As I said above, the nature of the movie's concept does give it a similar quality to Interstellar. There's also a degree of "love conquers time and space" here, but this time, it isn't used to change the past, but rather to fulfill a predestination paradox. Again, this is more inline with Billy Pilgrim's understanding with regard to being unstuck in time.
Arrival is certainly much more thoughtful and intelligently played than Interstellar. Much like in Slaughterhouse-Five, we're presented with aliens who simply perceive time (and therefor language) very differently from humans, and it's built up throughout the movie so that it doesn't come out of left field like the time travel stuff from Interstellar. The difference is that Arrival is actually a science fiction exploration of time travel, whereas Interstellar just wanted to put out its hokey message of love transcending time and space, and then wrapped it up in the guise of science fiction.
So it goes.
End of Spoilers
See it while you can
So I highly recommend this movie (which is a moot recommendation, since it probably won't be in theaters by the time most people read this). This film isn't as pessimistic as Interstellar. It isn't quite as optimistic as The Martian either. It depicts humanity as thoroughly self-destructive. But it's overall message is one of working together and communicating with one another, and it's damned effective at conveying how communication breaks down.