Arrival - Amy Adams

Arrival isn’t a political movie.

It is, in so many ways, an apolitical movie, a movie that wants to rise above the muck, cut through the nonsense, and cast a spotlight on concepts that should be universal to every member of the human race. Arrival is a film about patience and restraint, kindness and hope, communication and understanding. It sees our differences, the imagined barriers that divide us, as nothing short of apocalyptic. To survive, humanity must rise to the occasion and come together. To thrive, we must reconcile our passions and our intellects. We need to be smart. We need to be kind. We need to be brave.

But now, just a few days after the 2016 United States presidential election, Arrival has transformed into a beacon in the dark, a glimmer of light in a black room. The opening of a movie has never felt more fortuitous or more necessary. This was a great movie when I saw it over a month ago, but it is now a moral salve, an engine that can transform despair into hope.

The trailers do a fine job of telling you what Arrival is about. Aliens arrive on earth in giant, egg-shaped UFOs. The citizens of the world panic. A linguist named Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams, remarkable) is recruited by the United States military to find a way to communicate with the mysterious visitors and determine what they want. It’s not easy. It takes a long time. Things get bad. Then they get worse. But Dr. Banks, assisted by a physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) doesn’t give up. She doesn’t give in. She charges ahead.

It’s no spoiler to say that Arrival doesn’t feature sequences of cities being blown to smithereens by lasers. This isn’t Independence Day – violence is minimal and, when it does lurch into the story like an unwelcome drunk at peace conference, it’s treated with the appropriate ugliness and melancholy. Arrival has more in common with films like the original The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Abyss, and Contact. It’s science fiction of ideas, using grand concepts to put humanity itself under the microscope, strip us down to our essence, and ask us to examine our component parts as living, breathing creatures that have somehow been granted existence in a cosmos that is otherwise so hostile to human life. Arrival, like the human characters at the center of the story, values curiosity and self-reflection. It’s okay if you don’t know things – it only matters that you want to learn.

It cannot and should not be lost on audiences that Arrival is about a level-headed academic who has dedicated years to her craft stepping into a high-pressure situation where one wrong move could have cataclysmic consequences, where her superiors doubt she can get the job done, where too many ostensible allies are prepared to react out of fear. When Ted Chiang wrote the short story that inspired Arrival and screenwriter Eric Heisserer so elegantly adapted it, they couldn’t have had any idea of what would happen the week it was released. And yet, this story’s universal message, that the brightest and smartest and most capable of us can cut through the noise and be the best that we can be as a species, applies one thousand fold to this week, to this moment, to you, and to me.

This is also the point where it should be said that Arrival is fun, a visual spectacle with no fat on its 116-minute running time, directed with panache by Denis Villeneuve. Adams and Renner have a strong chemistry, the special effects are imaginative, the aliens fascinatingly non-human, and high-stakes plot spirals forward with the force of an action movie. Arrival is terrific entertainment, a two-hour distraction from the world if that’s what you want out of it.

Arrival

And yet, Arrival feels more valuable than just a good time at the movies. It is a wall outlet during an eight hour layover, that last battery buried at the bottom of the kitchen junk drawer, and a life jacket on a sinking ship. You’re still stuck at the airport, you’re officially out of batteries, and you’re still going to be stranded in the middle of the ocean, but you’ve been granted a reprieve, a moment to catch your breath. Arrival pushes its characters to brink of armageddon, showcasing humanity at its worst, the world stage as a sandbox for bloviating and saber rattling. But science wins. Patience wins. Diplomacy wins.  Complex responses trump knee-jerk reactions. Hope tames fear.

America has elected a President who ran on a platform of hate and fear, preaching vile platitudes, and appealing to our worst possible impulses. The night of the election, I wandered from room-to-room, alone and afraid and battling the depression and the anxiety that threaten to get the better of me on my best days. I’m one of the lucky ones – a white man married to a woman. If I wanted to hide, if I wanted to blend in, if I wanted to ensure that as few people as possible knew that I’m a bisexual man, I could probably get away with it. I could skate by under the surface of this nightmare and stand on the sidelines while the men and women who don’t have my camouflage absorb daily punishment from tens of millions of people who made it clear they don’t care about the safety of people of color, immigrants, and the LGBTQ community.

I was afraid. I’m still afraid. My stomach turns when I open Twitter. My heart sinks when I read my favorite news sites. I fear for the future of not just the United States of America, but the world. I don’t know how we can face the challenges coming our way when we’re so prepared to turn our back on so many basic moral principles. Hell, it makes me wonder if those basic moral principles even existed in the first place. Just how blind have I been? How much suffering have I overlooked by assuming we would always default to fairness and kindness and love?  It’s enough to sap your strength, to make you want to fall into a dark place.

But art is that candle you find in the corner of that dark place. It’s the book of matches in your breast pocket. The best of it illuminates great truths and reflects unbearable agonies. Cinema is the ultimate catharsis – it blasts away cobwebs on the soul. With Arrival, Villeneuve and Heisserer and cinematographer Bradford Young and editor Joe Walker and composer Jóhann Jóhannsson and everyone else involved have collaborated on bold and rich science fiction movie that is also a refute to hatred and a tribute to the human spirit. It’s a reminder that we need after this dark week: the best of us can help save the whole. If you’ve been too numb to cry, the film’s third act will break that final barrier – heartbreak and uplift merge into one overwhelming, contradictory force.

Arrival is the best movie I’ve seen in 2016. It’s the antidote to a year that has poisoned our collective soul. It may restore your faith in humanity. It will make you want to fight. It will make you want to live. It’s a refill of courage, delivered at 24 frames per second.

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