Oscars 2017: Arrival is setting the bar for thoughtful sci-fi movies

Arrival (2016)
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg

In anticipation of the 2017 Academy Awards I’m taking a look at the Best Picture nominees.

Arrival was on my list of most anticipated movies from 2016. Now I have finally watched it! Back then it was tentatively titled  “Story of Your Life”, based on the short story by Ted Chiang. My excitement for Arrival is because I really liked many of director Denis Villeneuve’s previous films and was interested in how he might offer a fresh take on the science fiction genre.

As you may know, Arrival is about 12 alien spacecrafts arriving all around the world. American linguistic professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) must interpret the alien’s language and determine the alien’s purpose on Earth before other nations take drastic defense measures. 

I appreciate that Arrival isn’t an alien invasion movie, at least not the typical kind. It’s thought-provoking and introspective. What I also like is the consistent emotional intelligence of the film. The “dream” sequences are shot and edited in a way that evokes a carefully constructed sentiment. The gradual pace of the story facilitates potentially smaller scenes, such as taking off a hazmat suit, to feel like a powerful character and story moment. There’s an inspirational tone, particularly embodied in the lead character Louise who we learn in the first scene that her young daughter had died, highlighting a hopeful and empathetic side to humanity. 

One of the questions posed in Arrival is what is the foundation of civilization? From physicist Ian Donnelly’s point of view it is science. In a way, if there ceased to be electricity for example, it would have a devastating effect on our way of life. But civilization preceded science or what we consider today as science. What would civilization look like if language came to a screeching halt?  Arrival suggests that communication or the inability to understand one another can in dire circumstances be the difference between humanity’s undoing and salvation.

To contextualize some of Arrival’s ideas in the modern political culture, freedom of speech is more than a principle. It’s a mechanism in Western civilization were individuals can articulate their ideas and as a result receive feedback that be used to refine what they think and come to a consensus.  If we control what people can say, we control what people can think. For a lot of people, they don’t know what they think until they talk about it out loud. Sometimes we are surprised by what we say as the words come out of our mouths. I sometimes don’t know what I truly think of a movie until I have to write a review or talk about it with a friend. The way we talk can change the way we think and subsequently influence how we experience our lives.

Arrival has other interesting ideas that I can’t scratch the surface of in this post.  Even if you only want to experience Arrival from a feeling based perspective, it is well worth the ride. Director Villeneuve takes care of the viewer in terms of the sentimental impact and story-wise he thoughtfully adapts an unconventional science fiction drama. Not to be overlooked is Amy Adam’s solid yet subtle performance.  I’m still working my way through the best of 2016 movies. Arrival might not be among my top favorites, it’s a little slow for me, but it’s one that I would like to revisit down the line.

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