Arrival (2016): the most humanist sci-fi film of the past decade

Science fiction is a genre too often misunderstood as something entirely fictional and futuristic. But if we dig deep and undress the carefully constructed metaphors (such as the presence of aliens, monsters and human mutants) we will find that the foundation of such films is always a commentary on our contemporary world. Somewhere under the surface, between the lines, science-fiction is always addressing our political, socio-economic or environmental situation, tapping into our collective fears and with a cathartic ending reassuring us that, no matter what dangers the humanity faces in a certain socio-historical moment, everything is going to work out just fine. Whether it is a sci-fi movie from the Cold War era, influenced by the nuclear threat and fear of communist Russia taking over the world, a post 9/11 alien-invasion movie that taps into people’s fear of terrorist attacks, or an environmental catastrophe movie from the early 2000’s when the reality and undeniable threat of global warming entered into our collective consciousness – there is always an important correlation between a science fiction story and an era in which it was made, even if such films do not always approach these subjects in the most impartial and non damaging way. But this is where Arrival so extraordinarily stands out from alien films that we have seen in the past, proving itself to be one of the most outstanding and humanist science fiction films of the past decade.

Denis Villeneuve, who is proving himself to be one of the most interesting and thought-provoking “mainstream” directors with films such as Enemy (2013) and Sicario (2015) under his belt, remains faithful to his slow-pacing tone, extremely rich symbolism and multi-layered (as well as non-linear) story that makes every further re-watch an extremely insightful and rewarding experience. He takes his time building up the story and it is not until the end (if not until the second viewing) that we can fully apprehend (and appreciate) this film’s brilliance and the powerful, unique message it delivers.

As a series of pod-shaped crafts (that seem to be greatly influenced by the monolith from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odissey) lands on earth, hovering just above the ground in 12 different locations, everyone starts to wonder what is going to happen. And while most people immediately turn to fear and start to panic (as many of us would when confronted with something unknown; something for which we have no means to understand), the fact remains that nothing is actually happening; there are no attacks, no attempts at taking over the world. They simply arrived – but why? And why are they staying here?

Instead of preparing to attack and destroy the mysterious objects, the military contacts two established scientists in hope that they would manage to establish a communication with extraterrestrial species living inside of each craft. A linguistics professor Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and quantum physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) are therefore brought to the site and introduced to heptapods living inside, but the usual science-duo gets an interesting twist by Banks being the who ends up calling all the shots and taking over the control of the situation. Amy Adams does a stellar job at portraying this brilliant and daring character that, even though is portraying a woman in power, does not end up being a stereotype of a woman who found herself lost in a man’s world and is desperately trying to stay there by acting like one of them. Dr. Banks instead has all the best qualities from both sides of the gender dichotomy spectrum: she is highly intelligent, rational, brave and uncompromising, but she is also intuitive, understanding and emphatic, which is why she has the least trouble in reaching out to foreign species and beginning a communication even though she does not speak their language.

Since their vocal communication is incomprehensible, she focuses on their written components; on symbols that resemble an ancient ouroboros – a symbol representing an infinite cycle of nature’s endless creation and destruction, of life and death. But little does she knows how learning this new language will help her entering into a whole new dimension of thought and how it will ultimately change her whole life: her perception of time, the whole meaning of her existence. It is here that the film enters into the field of linguistic relativity – into a theory that believes that the structure of a language in which we were born and which we speak shapes and affects our world-view and cognition. With each new language that we learn, we gain new knowledge, we enter into a new reality, and as a result we start to see and perceive the world differently.

By fearlessly engaging with the unknown Banks enters into a whole new reality and gains knowledge she never thought was within her reach (or even existed). Everything she needed to do to gain access to it was to open her eyes, her mind, her heart – and this is where the main beauty of this film lies. It is not enough to simply learn about existence of other cultures, languages, religions, traditions. It is not enough to unreflectively learn the information, the history, the grammar. We need to really absorb a different way of seeing; of seeing beyond of what is known, of what feels comfortable and safe. We need to not only acknowledge, but really see and understand everything and everyone that is foreign and unknown to us. No matter where we come from, of what is our nationality, gender, race, religion or sexual  orientation – we all have a lot to learn from one another, for we all see and experience the world differently.

If we watch the film closely we can see that this simple message is there from the very beginning: from the first time that Baker and other members of her team enter the craft, it is as if they are approaching a window that will give them knowledge to a new dimension. And if we look at the shape of the craft when shown from afar, we can see a vague resemblance to a contact lens; to something that brings our gloom reality out of the blur and helps us seeing the world more clearly. To something that provides us a new eye-sight, a new perspective, a new world-view, and with it a new level of consciousness, connectedness and collectivity.

The Basics:
Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
Written by: Eric Heisseres (based on the short story by Ted Chiang)
Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg
Running Time: 116 minutes
Year: 2016
Rating: 8

6 thoughts on “Arrival (2016): the most humanist sci-fi film of the past decade”

  1. As always, a supreme write-up 🙂 This certainly takes more than a few hints from Stan the man, but its not too overt. This observation: “see a vague resemblance to a contact lens” regarding the ships, I thought that was very apt.

    As for the rest of your post, I’m with you all the way. It took me a second viewing to understand it better, and I’ll be seeing it a third time before its gone from the big screen. Cos wow this movie looks amazing!!

    I may have missed it but you didn’t mention the score. Johann Johhannson has been working with Dennis for a long time, and this movie simply would not be what it is without the incredible soundtrack. Check out my blog, there is a post with the entire soundtrack as a playlist

    For me, and for the reasons you mentioned, this is the best sci-fi film since 2001. The incredible use of music and visuals, the deeply human elements, the way it says so much about humanity as a whole…. they are very different films but I think this is a new peak. Honestly this film makes Interstellar seem laughable

    1. I actually have not read Stan the man’s review, but I certainly will now that you mentioned it! As well as yours, I’m already looking forward to reading it. 🙂

      And yes, this certainly is one of the best sci-fi films since… it feels like forever, and I agree with you completely, it makes Interstellar seem laughable!

      I didn’t get to the score (as well as to the film’s visuals) because I think my review was already a bit too long – this would mean another 500 words for sure and I just don’t think people like to read that much. 😀 So I needed to stop somewhere, but the score really is mesmerising.

      1. Fair enough, though I always read all of your posts. They just always get me thinking, and offer new perspectives that I wouldn’t have thought of otherwise.

        And yeah, Interstellar just seems awful compared to this huh!!

        oh btw, when I said Stan the man I was referring to Kubrick 😛

        sorry for the late reply, I don’t think I got a notice that you had replied to my comment

        1. Thanks, Jordan! I sometimes don’t feel too confident about my reviews, but your comments always give me the will to keep on writing 🙂 I truly appreciate that! Haha oh man, I’m pretty sure I follow some blog called Stan the man, I thought you were referencing to that 😀

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