The drive to understand the unknown is something innate to humankind. It’s been shown throughout history that the prospect of discovery has driven man and woman alike to embark on journeys far beyond their normal expectations. It is likely due to this desire that the prospect of foreign life outside the realm of our own world has become a popular topic of creativity. Aliens and the like are usually met with hesitation and grim expectations, as the fear of the unknown multiplies when those possibilities aren’t satisfied. What makes this even more apparent is the comfort of familiarity and how it can push some to rid themselves of that unknown at all costs. Arrival plays on these fears, and the sense of understanding, within the walls of a craft too advanced to be properly understood.
There’s a sense of structure within films that deal with extraterrestrial life, as there have been too many to count that follow a guideline or formula to pace itself. One would assume that it starts with a normal life, that familiarity allowing people to live in relative comfort. This feeling is shattered when a sudden disturbance causes curiosity first, then panic afterwards, as a UFO or something of the sort is discovered and brought to light. Reacting to and carefully observing the behavior of these things is a cautiously logical thing to do, and is one that is present within films of the like. Some, however, never get the opportunity to set up communication.
What Arrival does is allow for the tension to build, to have that anticipation rise within the characters of the film to uncover exactly is happening on the world they inhabit. The alien lifeforms are strangely passive, allowing for humankind to investigate the disturbance of their own accord, rather than push them into an aggressive position. The film’s first phase allows for the aforementioned tension to simmer within the mind of the viewer, prodding them forward at the same pace and knowledge that the characters on-screen do. This anticipation is one that is expertly focused on and sapped from with every second, accentuated by slow, closing shots of gargantuan structures and blinding sights. The relative dreariness and isolation of the alien structure upon first arrival is a feeling that quenches the most intriguing of viewers. That innate desire to discover, to explore, to create—anything more would be embedded with unnecessary drivel. What the film manages to create more than the expectations of an advanced alien race is the realization that the world we know feels so much smaller in comparison to what our minds cannot comprehend.
This feeling of intrigue and logical stimulation is the film’s strongest point, with some intricacies and milestones present within the pacing of the film and the characters’ behavior in regards to the developments being put forth. More than the quality of discovery is the emphasis on telling a story, one that exudes more emotional distress than one would expect from a typical UFO thriller. Characters reacting to aliens and building a relationship with them allows criticism to arise out of their blank slates, never to adjust to maintaining that humanity due to a defensive mechanism to stay on their toes at all times. I have found myself hardly empathetic to those within stories of a serious nature that simply react to horrific subjects with a slight grimace and monotone whispers, much is the same vein as those within Arrival. To an extent, this is true, as the characters hardly distinguish themselves amongst one another as they’re all within the same thought process: discover the purpose of the aliens’ presence. At the same time, one can’t expect something of a potentially worldly significance to allow characters to act happy, aloof, or as they would in a comfortable situation to appeal to those more fond of character charisma. If there is one main fault, it is that the film does not cater to those wishing for an emotionally-stimulating study of humanity. However, that is not for lack of trying.
The charm of the characters is inhibited by the weight of the story and the significance of their goal, but the story allows for development to seep through for an engaging process of “What if?” By the credit sequence, one would likely have an uneasy, if not satisfied grasp of their chest. There is an attempt to make things emotionally respondent, particularly through use of manipulating memory and showcasing raw emotion for other human beings. The only issue is how much of this is filtered out due to the importance of the goal at hand. It’s almost humorous to consider that while the film focuses on the conflict between finding a balance of human-alien interaction, the film itself does on the same vein of balancing development of the plot versus the characters. Arrival serves as wonderful food for thought, though I question whether the impact of this logical approach to foreign species communication can allow for a subjective impact to manifest and grow within the souls of the viewers.
Another question to consider for a film of this caliber is the portrayal of acting among the actors within it. The magnitude of importance of the plot causes the level of seriousness to exude from the characters in a way that’s easy to ad-lib. Aside from Adams’s character, who goes through a number of different scenarios whether in real time or not, the character listing has a good ratio of curiosity, trepidation, and concern. A good portion of the runtime has the characters’ faces planted in a neutral state, more so after time has passed. There is a hesitation within me to praise the acting of some of these people, as I feel most actors would have been able to embody the same sense of emotions present on the faces of those onscreen. Little knowledge that I have regardless, acting serious may be among the least difficult to pull off in a major motion picture. All that aside, the most I can say is that the actors did their job. Their mannerisms and facial cues were appropriate for the situation and realistic enough to give them life. Satisfying, but not exemplary.
More than anything, the greatest aspect of filming shown here is the atmosphere, one exemplified by the reasoning of shots and the impact they have when the context becomes clear. Many different scenes, such as Adams’s character’s home behind the clouded hue of the evening sky, or being lifted up into the aliens’ vessel, showing the darkness of the incoming world and the slow disappearance of that familiar world to humanity. Every shot, every scene takes full advantage of what it wants to do, giving a lingering feeling of anticipation for the audience to never shy away from. There is importance in every aspect of what is being shown; so much so that it almost feels as though you, yourself, are within the world being shown to you. The foundation of the story crafts a garden of mental vegetation, giving the viewer every opportunity to pick and choose from their leisure a variety of different things. At the same time, it feels like a machine, slowly and methodically pinching you in ways that it wants you to feel. One may have to watch the film more than once to be able to pick apart every aspect of the imagery presented.
A curious case exceeded me going into Arrival in theaters. I was already somewhat aware of its logical persona, while part of me simply wanted to be taken aback by alien lifeforms and special effects. I was not disappointed in either regard, as both showed a naturally unnatural assessment of being beyond comprehension without pondering on it. More specifically, I enjoyed the minimal use of special effects, only suited for when the aliens were shown. It gave a wonderful contrast between their world and ours, furthering that feeling of isolation when coming within contact. The level of effects aren’t ones that will defy expectations, but they’re suited enough for the boundaries of the film to make it seem bigger than our own universe.
Though not without expectations, I was pleased with the amount of thought I was given by movie’s end. The ratings are already impressively high, while a number of respected critics have given their recommendations, I couldn’t help but feel giddy about going to see a sci-fi film for the first time in so long. Walking out of the theater, I was as silent as the void of atmosphere that held the alien lifeforms within. A film that causes me to stir in eerie silence is enough of a recommendation from me to garner interest in some, but I implore anyone interested at all in the sci-fi genre to consider Arrival. There’s simply too much work put into it, however minimalist, to see it waste away at the box office.
Final Score: 9/10