Lessons in Seeing

Film review: Arrival (Director: Denis Villeneuve)

By Sascha Krieger

Soft light, a face drifting in and out of the frame, moving from blurred to focused and back. another face appears, that of a new born baby. Any intimate moment of pure happiness and complete confusion, followed by equally intense glimpses of grief and utter despair, so intimate, so personal, so dense the viewer almost feels they shouldn’t look. This, accompanied by a pignant if deliberately a touch sentimental piece by Max Richter, is how Arrival begins and it is how it will end, a little less than two hours later. No, Arrival is not your typical science fiction film even if its story might suggest this: 12 alien space ships arrive on earth and humankind tries to find out why they’ve come and what to do about them. Sounds familiar? Well, it isn’t really. Which starts with the protagonist: the woman we see at the beginning is Louise Banks, a linguist who gets hired by the task force investigating the apparent alien invasion. Her job is to find out who they are and why they’re here, to translate their unknown language. She is joined by a physicist named Ian Donnelly whose job is never entirely clear but that doesn’t really matter.

Image: © 2016 Sony Pictures Releasing GmbH

Image: © 2016 Sony Pictures Releasing GmbH

Much of the film is consumed with Louise trying to communicate with the aliens – whose appearence is quite unique, one might say – and attempting to decipher what seems to be their written language, oddly shaped circles without beginning and end. Memories of her lost daughter – see the beginning – start popping up more and more often and the more intense and frequent they become the more they beg the question whether they are actually memories. For this is at the core of the film: Understanding somebody require to first get acquainted with their world view, how they see reality, how they perceive time. The circular, non-linear nature of their writing is a clue the film quite subtly follows. As Louise (a superb, quietly intense Amy Adams) and Ian (Jeremy Renner remains a little pale) stumble along on the path to knowledge and understanding, the film takes up that exploratory rhythm. When crisis strikes it becomes more hectical but mostly there is a poetical sense of wonder to its narrative rhythm and the quiet, never openly spectacular, very intimate-feeling images it speaks through. Getting to know, to understand the „other“ is a wondrous adventure only few can appreciate. So, soon the world is on the brink of war. How the danger is averted is one of the most amazing and heart-warming twists of science fiction history.

As it moves into its questioning of our widely-accepted concepts of reality and time, as Louise starts wondering about why we believe them to be true and how we’ve come to accept the existence of a universal truth, the film’s narrative becomes more circular, non-linear, poetic, one might say. For this is what Arrival is ultimately about: humankind’s ability (or inability) to open themselves to different, alien ways of thinking, seeing, perceiving the world, accepting different points-of-view, opening their eyes to accept that others might see, feel, think differently. One might read Arrival as a metaphor on whats happening in our world to day, an appeal for more acceptance, the willingness to question one’s beliefs and test how they deal with reality. It is all this but it is also a deeply intimate story about grief, denial, acceptance and that most cruel thing of all: moving on. Arrival is a tender poem in warm, reduced colours, an intimate song to sooth ourselves, a gently cry for being what we’re supposed to be: human. A miracle, a wonder, a milestone.  Nothing less.

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