(WARNING: This post contains spoilers for Arrival)
Ever since its inception, science fiction has tapped into cultural issues and fears. In #WarOfTheWorlds, H.G. Wells grappled with the concept of evolution at a time when society was widely opposed to the idea. George Orwell's 1984 terrified with its interpretation of state-sponsored surveillance, a debate which still rages today. With Denis Villeneuve's #Arrival, it's the trouble arising from miscommunication. It's a theme that permeates the film from the intimately personal story of a mother bound to her daughter across time, right up to the geo-political scale. This makes Arrival one of the most poignant and timely films ever made.
We're living at a point where communication is breaking down between nations and within nations, where anxiety about the future has people stocking up on bottled water and canned goods. It's not the terror that makes Arrival so poignant however, it's the solution.
A New Golden Age Of Science Fiction
The past decade or so has delivered some phenomenal science fiction movies, thanks to technological advancements and a serious attention to storytelling. IMAX and 3D technology in particular have allowed for much larger, visually impressive stories. Alfonso Cuaran set the bar high with #Gravity, winning an astonishing 7 Academy Awards. #Interstellar couldn't quite follow suit despite enormous hype, taking away just the Oscar for Best VFX.
But there's been smaller scale, lower budget hits, blockbusters built on practical effects, independent success stories. Here's a brief rundown of some of my personal favorite science fiction movies of the past 16 years:
- District 9
- Ex Machina
- Dawn of the Planet of The Apes
- Mad Max: Fury Road
Arrival is the latest science fiction film to be generating an audible Oscar buzz. Story-wise, it's most reminiscent of Close Encounters of The Third Kind, following linguistics expert Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) as she struggles to decipher the intricate language of alien visitors to planet earth.
While it shows some similarities to Spielberg's classic in terms of genre tropes and tone, or Gravity and Interstellar for its breathtaking cinematography, Arrival is its own beast entirely.
It’s one of the best movies of the year, and one of the best science fiction movies ever made — Paul Suderman, Vox
This story is about Dr. Louise Banks, and that point is hammered home from the outset. In a gut-wrenching opening montage we play witness to her daughter's entire life, from her birth to deathbed. It's a masterful move that both endears us to Banks, and deceives us. Amy Adams delivers a powerhouse performance as the expert in her field, and this opening acts as a linchpin for everything we think we know about her character. She betrays enough anxious traits and signs of stress to sell the eventual twist; that her debilitating flashbacks aren't what they seem. Her gradual understanding of the alien language is changing her perception of time.
Chris Nolan's Interstellar played with the concept of time, but the visual cues littered throughout Arrival makes for a greater pay-off at the reveal. Interstellar was ultimately criticised for moments of incoherence, despite a similar display of incredible performances from its cast, a staggering soundtrack, and award-winning cinematography. The scientific reach of the film was such that it alienated some viewers, and disappointed others.
Arrival on the other hand remains relatively grounded despite dealing with another academic field of study. Linguistics might seem less exciting than astrophysics. The dull details of phonetics and enunciation doesn't give most of us butterflies, but Denis Villeneuve maintains the suspense throughout cerebral moments and realistic conflicts.
As the race to understand why the aliens are here runs on, the human allies steadily cut off from one another through suspicion. American isolationism. Chinese and Russian military intervention. It all feels very close to the bone, while Dr. Banks is left struggling through all this red tape. We feel her growing exasperation as she points out to her superiors what seems glaringly obvious.
"We need to talk to the other sites and work together for once."
There's a cross-generational appeal to this frustration with bureaucracy. Whatever your opinion on our planet's current political climate, there's clearly a call for change. The sensation that individuals (or entire sections of society) are sidelined in favor of the political status quo and vested interests is a common one. It's been around since before H.G. Wells's time. It definitely remains to this day.
It's not just Banks's intelligence, but her resilience in doing the right thing that makes her so special. Couple this brilliant protagonist with Arrival's clear lack of an out-and-out bad guy, and what you get is a very clever, brave, and engaging plot.
In Gravity, Sandra Bullock faced off against natural forces in a showcase of the extraordinary lengths a person will go to in order to survive. Dr. Louise Banks faces something much more complicated in Arrival: the subjective but valid experiences of everyone around her.
The soldiers who resort to violence, the Chinese ratcheting up their military intervention, the government who respond to growing suspicions with total isolation. Each of these snarls in the plot are entirely justified from the respective characters' points of view. This also ties into the twist, where Arrival's faith in humanity is revealed.
Literary Versus Pulp
Interstellar and Gravity are probably the closest comparisons to Arrival in terms of tone, visuals, and content. They're the sort of literary, hard science-fiction stories that attempt to embed their premise in a realistic setting. It's the space age variety of Chris Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy, applying gritty realism to their fantastical premise.
Not all science fiction movies need to pan out quite that way. #MadMaxFuryRoad was the breakout success of 2015, winning 6 Academy Awards and widespread acclaim. That excludes, of course, a few whiny chauvinists who didn't like Charlize Theron stealing the show. And steal the show she did. Furiosa was the definitive hero of the movie, sticking it to patriarchy with a diesel-punk prosthetic middle finger. It ploughs along at a breakneck pace from start to finish, expanding on the post-apocalyptic world that inspired all other post-apocalyptic worlds. While Interstellar, Gravity, and Arrival are poignant movies, Mad Max: Fury Road is pure fun. It still addresses the dangers of nuclear war, it just assumes the worst and makes something brilliant in the fallout.
Science fiction is such a broad genre that it's impossible to pick out an objective best movie. For every Minority Report there's a Back To The Future. For every realistic analysis of our society there's a zany escapist movie that's just as worthwhile. Comparing one to the other is purely a matter of opinion, and you know what they say about opinions.
The Future Might Be Bright
We're less than two decades in to the 21st century, so it's probably too early to be calling the best of anything. Yet, it's easy to feel cynical when you look at the state of our world as it is. There's a palpable tension, like the heat before a storm. Maybe the 21st century won't last very long. Maybe mankind will be living in one of George Miller's nightmares in a few decades time.
Arrival is a rare film. It's original, it's brilliantly told, and it has something very important to say. Sure, it's light on set-pieces, but I'm a little lethargic when it comes to city-wide destruction anyway.
What about you? Let me know what you thought about the movie in the comments below. If you disagree with me, feel free to rant and rave. I promise not to get angry. Or just click on the poll below to save some typing time.