“Arrival” is one of the best films I’ve seen in a long time, in any genre. The storytelling is subtle and complex, with a non-linear narrative and a nuanced portrayal of what it is to love, especially what it is to love a child. Amy Adams gives an Oscar-worthy performance in which her interior monologue, her emotional distress, the way in which she interprets the world are written on her face rather than rendered in words.
The Science Fiction ideas at the centre of this story are not simple ones: the impact of language not just on thought but on our ability to see and understand our world and our lives, the problematic nature of communication between cultures with no common points of reference and the nature of the courage needed to pursue the truth in the face of fear.
These would be hard enough to convey in prose. Most movie makers would shy away from this complex subtlety, looking for simpler messages, faster action, clearer conflict and a resolution that would bring a sense of triumph.
Denis Villeneuve, the director of “Arrival”, is braver and more ambitious that that. He tells the story at a pace that allows us to experience the emotions, the changes in perception, the fears and the insights of the main character, Louise Banks, an college professor studying linguistics. He brings us a resolution that gives a sense of arrival at truth as well as the start of a new journey.
David Villeneuve trusts us to keep up without infodumps and lectures. He avoids or subverts clichés. He powers this movie of ideas by emotion not by CGI and blowing stuff up (although the CGI is first rate and they do blow stuff up).
“Arrival” is based on Ted Chiang’s short story, “The Story Of Your Life” and the movie is the story of the of Louise Bank’s life and her arrival at a point of understanding that changes everything. Although the plot revolves around a “First Contact” event, the meaning of the story comes from Louise’s personal struggle to open her mind and understand. Sharing that struggle was exciting and more emotionally engaging.
After the movie I bought the ebook of Ted Chiang’s short story collection which includes stories that have won Nebula, Sturgeon, Campbell, and Asimov awards. I’m looking forward to reading it.
If you still need convincing to go and see “Arrival”, take a look at the trailer below but my recommendation is just go and watch it with an open mind, preferably in a big movie theatre where you can share the experience.