Once per decade, a film that changes the landscape. This film, through sheer quality, forces us to evaluate our standards of greatness, and wonder two things: is our current perception of greatness outdated, and why doesn't every movie shoot for that cultural zenith? Not only do our cultural tastes come into question, but our philosophies and beliefs as they relate to our day-to-day lives as well. To call the artistic effort in question enlightening is not out of left field.
Denis Villeneuve's Arrival is that film.
Twelve extraterrestrial spacecrafts touch down on various parts of the globe, and the world powers must figure out how to respond, and what their purpose is. In a subversion of standard alien invasion tropes, typically amounting to allegories about European Imperialism, humanity chooses peace. Linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams), mathematician Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), and U.S Army Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) spearhead America's movement to discover the meaning of the alien's presence by means of academia.
After months of painstaking effort, Louise is able to establish functional communication with the aliens, and discovers the purpose of their visit. Arrival's resolution is a monumental masterstroke.
Arrival's protagonist, Louise, dons many hats throughout the film's running time. She wears the hat of the Shakespearian tragic hero; she\'s a good person overcome by her own personal demons in the form of her dead daughter, and her fatal flaw manifesting as her obsession to decode the visitor's message, which comes full circle in the third act. Depending on your interpretation, she either succumbs to it, or rises above it. She also wears the hat of the Lovecraftian hero; her academic achievements aside, Louise is no chosen one. She's an ordinary person with hints of a latent madness who stumbles upon cosmic knowledge that, by Arrival's end, changes her fundamentally.
By the finale, she puts on the hat of the biblical hero; the aliens charge Louise on a crusade of sorts, not unlike Noah\'s mission from god. Louise's character is rich and her arc is profound. She is Hamlet, King Arthur, Joan of Arc, and Wilbur Whateley in one. And the conclusion of her story is tragic, yet optimistic for her future.
The Biblical and Lovecraftian parallels don't stop with Louise. The aliens, known in this movie as Heptapods, resemble angels and outer gods. As angels, their coming is marked with great strife and chaos. The world powers remain divided throughout Arrival on how to deal with the Heptapods, sparking hostility and discord between our characters and the world at large.
And yet they come with a message for humanity. Angels are not these white-robed, dove-winged beauties of popular conception. The first words often spoken by angels are “do not be afraid.” Their presence is eldritch in nature, and they're known to drive people mad, and their coming is associated with destruction and pandemonium. But they're simply emissaries of God, and like the Heptapods, their messages have equal capacity for wisdom and ruin.
In a Lovecraftian sense, Arrival can be viewed as a cosmic horror. Cosmic horror addresses that which is outside our grasp to comprehend, and this film uses the Heptapod's presence to explore deep philosophical questions, and one question that comes to mind is what else is hidden in the black depths of space?
Cosmic horror presents us with the vast unknown and unimaginable, and that simultaneous feeling of fright, disgust, and dread as whatever lurks in incomprehensible space comes crashing into our own little pocket of reality. What prevents this from being true cosmic horror, however, is Arrival reinforces humanity's significance instead of questioning it (although which is more terrifying is debatable). In the end, humanity is trusted with a special gift from the Heptapods, and they themselves turn out to be quite benevolent, or at the very least benign.
Arrival is that rare breed of awesome that actually conforms to the dictionary definition of the word. It is a love-letter to not only science-fiction fans, but to humanity as well. With outstanding performances, notably from Adams and Whitaker, an immersive and enriching atmosphere enhanced by a breathtaking score, and a willingness to get into the meat of what most modern day science-fiction merely skims over, Arrival truly is that once in a decade movie, and a contender for this reviewer's personal favorites list.