Text by Gabriele Niola
Translation By Bianca Baroni
Photos by Alessio Costantino
In collaboration with Badtaste.it
The whole history of sci-fi cinema is made of different types of contacts, good or bad, cultural or warmongering. Arrival plays on this: the movie knows we know and instead of narrating the classic story about what happened when aliens arrived, it tells us something way smaller and shorter: how planet Earth got in touch with them for the first time.
Arrival isn’t an adventure movie nor an exploration one, but its strength is that all of a sudden can become both of them. The incredible appeal of this movie lays in the fact that nearly for its whole length, there’s a heavy, tangible and violent tension towards the discovery of what there could be in the others’ mind. Are they here to attack us or only to talk? Are they Independence Day-like or they are similar to Close Encounters of the Third Kind? The army fears them, just like the protagonists, two scientists called by the soldiers: of course the first presses for interventionism, the latter for comprehension, because that’s their background. Villeneuve perfectly understood how to play with the audience, how to push them towards a direction at first and then towards the opposite, how to make them think something using images but evoking a different one throughout words.
There’s such a refined editing research (that alternates dream to reality but also temporal levels) that Arrival definitely becomes an art film, that was thought to tell much more than what it shows. Despite a plot that would not make a poor figure in any blockbuster, Villeneuve’s approach shapes what we are used to perceive as a great entertainment inside a language made of images which is complex but comprehensible. Just like the majority of modern science fiction, even this movie is complicated because it involves scientific concepts that need to be explained to the audience and then used, and the narrative effort not to make the story heavier is great. Instead of showing us the aliens, Arrival tries to understand their nature just like we do and it brings us in front of every discovery together with the main characters. Every twist in the plot is explained and everything is conveyed to the audience in order to make them understand it by themselves, without telling it explicitly. This cinema is at its peak and faces one of the most commercial themes head on, while finding in it the rightest questions, not the most predictable answers (as many blockbuster often do).
So, Arrival reminds us of Interstellar for style and recalls, but very thinly also of District 9 and its political science fiction. The enormous effort to understand someone who’s far from us is at the center of it all, together with the desperate attempt not to be scared but to reflect on diversity instead of escaping, trying to avoid the fear that any event could bring an attack, while hoping to be right. Needless to say, Amy Adams is the perfect choice: her ample range of expressiveness makes her able to add fear to tension, excitement to tension, that feeling that makes us want to carry on together with the fear that pushes us back. However, skill isn’t enough. Just a few years ago, the main role of the scientist who’s against the army would have been assigned to a man. It would have been a great part for Dustin Hoffman, Richard Dreyfuss or Jeff Goldblum and it’s not that different from Matthew McConaughey’s one in Interstellar. And yet this time the role was given to a woman who faces men to impose her own will, just like Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty. And it’s not small thing, the fact that it’s a woman trying to impose herself who is in the middle of a movie in which the aim is to understand aliens. It’s not normal nor banal. And in Villeneuve’s hands, it’s great.