Arrival Of A New Era: A Review

By Jeanne Tan (17A01B)

Just a personal disclaimer: I’m the type of movie-goer who seeks meaning in my movies. An essential question we all ponder, or a struggle that viewers relate to seeing resolved.

I have mixed feelings about whether Arrival fulfills this, but the rest of this movie might be enough to warrant an exception.

The premise of this movie (currently a Best Picture Oscar contender) seems a mix of the intellectual and the blockbuster: a linguistics professor is invited onto a team by the government to help bridge the communication gap between humans and a newly-arrived species of aliens. The movie’s promotion, however, appears to favour an ethereal aura, shrouding the aliens and the central conflict in utter mystery.

1
The vague, yet menacing alien species. (Photo: Den of Geek)

While the premise seems to imply brain puzzles and high action, the movie turns out to require neither, for the most part. The aliens, while important as a plot device, are hardly the focus of the story, which is instead centred around the emotional journey of our lead character, Dr Louise Banks (portrayed by Amy Adams).

Without going into too much detail, the movie delves into the meaning of communication and perception, drawing loosely from the linguistic theory of relativism, which states that the language we speak affects the way we perceive the world around us. The sci-fi-infused application of relativism presented is gradual, allowing the audience to slowly put together the pieces and reach the conclusion at the same time as the protagonist, making it an engaging and nerve-wracking viewing experience.

This experience was, in fact, what made this movie stand out from other movies. This form of storytelling was ambitious and introduced something that current movies rarely feature. Going into this movie blind and taking in the information as it was handed out was an essential part of the movie experience. It made watching and understanding it engaging in a way that was both unique and memorable.

And this viewing experience was definitely successful due to the stylistic choices that went into it: in terms of technique, the movie was nearly flawless. The music (composed by Jóhann Jóhannsson) was otherworldly and at times unsettling, slow and mysterious at times, high pitched and jarring at others. The long takes and scenic pans of the cinematography blended well into the suspenseful atmosphere and tone, achieving perfection in complementing the story.

The aliens and alien technology, which were vital in ensuring that the movie was neither too divorced from concept nor too cheesy, were a perfect mix of haunting and subtle, making them believable as a foreign species but not distracting from the human characters.

The lingering takes of the alien ship amidst natural scenery helped build this silent, yet unsettling atmosphere. (Photo: Popsci)
The lingering takes of the alien ship amidst natural scenery helped build this silent, yet unsettling atmosphere. (Photo: Popsci)

Yet despite the near perfect execution of the movie, its central message was ultimately, in my opinion, lost. This movie was based off The Story Of Your Life by Ted Chiang, which originally spent a significant amount of time focusing on a very personal, individual dilemma, questioning key human concepts like love, life, and death.

The movie centres itself around the same question, employing an abundance of gorgeous visuals to build up the climatic question, but skimming over the character’s moment of truth. The answer is given in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it scene — in a single line of dialogue, in fact, which was incredibly underwhelming on second thought.

Furthermore, as the movie progresses, it delves further into the more fantastical elements of the alien language, getting wrapped up in the nail-biting elements, to the point of bending its own credibility. Ultimately, the takeaway was a little muddled, and the story felt a little lost by the end.

Nevertheless, there were fun bits, including little linguistic fact-dropping and the exaggerated yet horrifyingly accurate portrayals of world powers. The (smaller) shadow in all the posters, Jeremy Renner, plays a scientist who clashes with Louise in hints of the science vs arts debate that we’re all familiar with.

The process of establishing communication with aliens was intriguing to watch. (Photo: Scified)
The process of establishing communication with aliens was intriguing to watch. (Photo: Scified)

When consumed whole, the movie comes together as a mind-blowing viewing experience, with stunning visuals and overall great direction. This review is a little short, since I strongly believe that this movie’s strongest suit lies in the experience derived from uncovering the plot while watching it, and thus have refrained from specific spoilers.

While it may not hold up under a microscope, Arrival is pretty close to a masterpiece in all areas except one, and the viewing experience is something that I hope current filmmakers can start to incorporate into their movies. We can only hope that with this movie’s success, Arrival can become simply a preview into the new, innovative era for movies.

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