Written by Nelson Cumming
Arrival had a lot of promise. So much so that I paid a lot extra to see it on a wider screen, thinking I would get overwhelmed by the grandiose mis en scene. That didn’t happen. Despite this, Arrival is a very interesting and highly original film.
Oddly, the movie it reminded me of was The Tree of Life by Terrance Malick although it is not anything like it. To use a book title from Douglas Adams, The Tree of Life concerns itself with “Life, The Universe and Everything” whereas Arrival explores the inner-workings of communication, language and pre-determinism. The latter of which I didn’t get until much later after I saw it.
Unpacking the Plot- A headache that was worth it
I’m gonna be honest. I didn’t get the subplot of the movie at all until I did a bit of research. After looking it up I thought “Damn, Arrival was going for the gold” The main plot and subplot are completely non-linear (like The Tree of Life) and I was wondering why the subplot even existed for a while. I’ll outline both the plot and subplot before explaining further.
So the main plot involves Amy Adams who plays a professional linguist sent by the US military to communicate with these aliens that have bordered earth. A lot of the film involves Adams and Jeremy Renner (who plays a theoretical physicist) decoding the language and understanding why the aliens have come to earth.
As Adam’s learns of the aliens language, Adams has visions of her daughter which serves as the subplot of the film. When the twist comes, I was wondering why she was having visions of her child in the first place. The movie raised more questions than it answered for me. It didn’t seem to add up.
That is a broadly specific as I can be without ruining it. You need to know the subplot to fully understand the meaning of the film.
The Tree of Life analogy
I saw Arrival as more of an atmospheric film about how the intricacies of communication changes meaning and how you need to get both linguistics and the meaning behind language to reach understanding. The best moments for me were when Adams were decoding the alien language, trying to understand their purpose of existence.
Only until after I saw it I realize I was only scratching the surface. It’s like the Tree of Life in that both the plot and subplot are non-linear and one of the plots have to do with the world around us and the other side of the story revolves around a family and with Arrival, the two didn’t stories did not connect well enough for me to understand.
That was until I realised why Adam’s character has all these visions. Once I knew that all of Arrival’s ideas just seemed to connect and fall into place. It really is a thinking movie and I might like it more if I saw it again. It explores the philosophical concept of pre-determinism vs. fate. Unlike most films, Adams choose with her final word in the film when she is asked a very abrupt (almost comical) question.
However, I can only judge based on what I saw initially and I liked it for the cinematography, Amy Adams performance and how the lead characters slowly develop an understanding with the aliens. If I see it again, now knowing the movie fully, I would like it even more. That I am certain of. However, I must rate it based on what I was feeling at the time and while I liked it overall there were a lot of moments I was scratching my head on how she has the conceived of her visions in the first place ***1/2