Arrival (2016) Review: How One Line Tells Us Everything

[Spoilers throughout, please don’t read this if you’re planning to see Arrival]

Full disclosure, Arrival was my most anticipated movie of 2016. My expectations were through the roof, despite my lukewarm feels for Forest Whitaker and Jeremy Renner. I was confident Amy Adams could carry the entirety of the cinematic and narrative weight on her perfect, delicate little shoulders (see American Hustle re: shoulders). And then finally… something in 2016 met (and exceeded) my expectations, rather than just throwing them in the garbage. Thank you, Arrival.

I will say a bit about my feelings about film as an art form, because these feelings are super relevant to my experience in the theater seeing this movie. No other medium speaks to me in nearly the same way as film, and that’s true by like a lightyear. Film, when done (objectively) correctly, tells its audience something simple and digestible in the context of the complex and sometimes convoluted. And the context doesn’t need to be inherently complex, just complex relative to the message. How do I know the movie’s context will be complex? Because they always involve people (or trolls, or talking animals, or toys etc.) Arrival does this in its purest form of perfection. It is a piece of art that takes 1 hr and 56 min to teach us one thing, spoken (ultimately) in one line of dialogue — one line of dialogue, yet carefully marinated in all the rising action. If it wasn’t for the social pressure of having attended the movie with other people, I might still be fetal in the theater recliner.

The movie is grey and slate and washed out green. Our heroine, Louise (Adams), has apparently lost a child to disease, aka the worst possible thing. Reds and yellows would be offensive for such an occasion. Adams’s performance is convincing from beginning to end. The scope of the film is immediately immense yet remains intimate. Space ships (fetal as a result of a movie about “space ships”? Yes, see previous sentence) arrive on earth, all over the place. We can’t understand what they’re saying and we need a linguist to help.

Any movie with the word “linguist” in the synopsis has to be boring: False. Language is the fabric of our intimacy and can be the concrete in our barriers. Thank you to our screenwriters for recognizing that and teaching us about its implications. The context of the movie is aliens arriving on earth and humanity avoiding utter destruction by working together. It would be an artistic travesty to walk away from this movie saying that that is what this movie is about. It’s not even that this movie is saying something more than that, it’s that it’s saying something wholly other than that.

Through masterful screenwriting and direction, the audience learns in an instant that what we thought were flashbacks are, in fact, flash-forwards. While never fully addressing all the potential pitfalls with time travel/knowing the future (Good. I call this the Cloverfield effect — any explanation would be lame, so just don’t provide one. Where did that monster come from? Dunno. OK.), we learn that Louise’s major life loss is yet before her, and she is poised to start down this devastating path with her alien-decrypting partner, Ian (Renner).

What is the one line of dialogue toward which this movie postures itself for nearly 2 hours, through complex scenarios, literal alien language, human depravity, missed opportunities, and a bit of time-bending? After the audience catches up to the realization that when the aliens depart, she will go on to conceive a child (with Ian), who will ultimately die in childhood, we begin to feel the crushing weight of Louise’s burden of knowledge. *Well I’ll be damned if I can remember exactly what she said but she tells the audience (who is still reeling) that, even knowing her daughter would die young, she walks this path without hesitation or doubt. How can that be? If it’s me: get me off this monorail of devastation. Please. That’s where Ian ultimately lands after learning Hannah’s fate, which I thought was another masterful move by the writers, to show us the complexity of fear and loss, in contrast to Louise’s bravery and unwavering commitment to the joy of life lived, no matter how brief. But Ian can’t deal. And I get it.

So if you hear anyone saying, “You gotta go see Arrival. It’s exactly what our country needs right now, because it shows us overcoming our differences to work together…” don’t be rude because yeah, sure, that happens in this movie. But, when the moment is right, pull that person aside and explain to them that the grand-scale stage on which this movie is set is just the display case for the real deal. A small story about life lived in the face of loss, and why it’s worth it.

9/10 only for a couple weak moments of dialogue, for me. If it’s not my #1 movie of the year I will be surprised.

*Edit: During the second viewing, I paid attention and she said, “Despite knowing the journey, and where it leads, I embrace it and welcome every moment of it.”

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