Ban All Blockbusters: Arrival

Credit: Simin Li/ Credit: Simin Li/

Arrival, a new movie directed by Denis Villeneuve and written by Eric Heisserer, is based on the short story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang. It stars Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Forest Whitaker.

I want to talk about how Arrival is an antidote to the flashy/skin-deep/overblown summer blockbuster, but it would be disingenuous to say that this film isn’t aiming even higher. This is a movie that wants you to leave the theater talking about subjects ranging from the Syrian refugee crisis to Noam Chomsky to the fundamentals of human empathy.

I’ll try not to reveal too much, but just trust that this is a bit more of a mind meal than Independence Day.

First of all, this movie is directed with an explicit interest in showing you images that will linger in your mind long after the credits roll. I’m fairly certain an imperative goal of the cinematographer, Bradford Young, was to make audience members dream vividly of the enormous egg-like alien crafts hovering precariously over us, or the austere rectangular cavity wherein most of the film’s action takes place. The images are composed quietly and monumentally, with no (well, maybe a few) explosions or sugary excitement to confuse the experience. Even the chosen structure of the film, edited consciously and curiously, took me along in a way that was very unlike other movies, particularly in the sci-fi genre. It’s not just the content of the story that’s meant to communicate with you, but the idiosyncratically cerebral way that it is told. This makes for a brilliant compliment to the story itself.

There is reason to believe that Arrival was written at a more politically and socially hopeful time, with its gaze cast on the hurdles, challenges, and ultimate saving graces of our increasingly globalized society. Perhaps the writer assumed that the ideals which Arrival stands for would be nearly universally recognized and embraced, making the film itself a victory flag mounted atop our progressive social landscape. However, recent developments in nationalist rhetoric, the cooling of international relationships, and the souring of attitudes toward a cohesive global community force Arrival onto a different platform; it is an allegory, a voice trying to pull us away from the void of reductive thinking, crying out for actualized dialogue and intricately imagined communication.

Just in time for the holidays!

The division of the country’s conscience, done publicly and grotesquely, leaves us going home to loved ones who may feel philosophically or emotionally threatened by us or each other. Confusion over misunderstood ideals, a seemingly defining choice creating an ocean between siblings, parents, cousins. This year has presented rare difficulties in family relations, each side heartbroken and angry. And beyond the family, we might feel an unbridgeable gap in sentiment between us and the more nebulous “other,” those we do not know who do not agree with us. In this case, it’s even harder to believe there could be any common ground to stand on.

But, if Arrival is telling us anything, it’s that there is always common ground. The virtue of the film’s main character is that she is willing to put in the enormous effort it takes to listen, to take the time for intelligent consideration and deep understanding, which too often people mistake for being frivolous or unrealistic.

So maybe we should talk about this on an even larger scale, consider what the “other” is to a whole lot of people, maybe even a country. As mentioned earlier, this movie does bring to mind thoughts of Syrian refugees, or others forced into exile, looking for inclusion from a foreign power. Consequently, I think about the reductive way that certain administrations have addressed and labelled these people. It seems that organizations of powerful people around the world have decided that what refugees or other marginalized groups communicate is death, and, in their fervor to squash a perceived threat, lead many more people to cataclysm. Arrival intends to land the point that this merely boils down to misunderstanding.

The only villains in Arrival are not people, but rather misguided principles, reactionary protectiveness, and defensiveness, which so quickly turns to violent offensiveness.

So, yes, in my mind Arrival is a truly perfect movie for the holiday season in this strange year. It stands hopeful in the face of so much news that would undercut its sentiment. I’ll be sure to see it again, with my family, in a theater, surrounded by strangers with whom I’ll be able to name at least one commonality.