I saw the movie “Arrival” yesterday — for the second time. I plan to watch it at least once or twice more, depending on how many friends I can compel to join me. Before I saw it for the first time, I had certain preconceptions about what it would be, based on reviews I’d read. The reviews also told me that I would be surprised by what it actually turned out to be. However, only a handful of movies in my life have transcended (not just exceeded) my expectations to a significant degree, so I was skeptical.
Boy, was I transcended.
The bones of the movie were what I expected: a very well executed variation on the First Contact theme, in which humanistic ideals (embodied by Amy Adams’ protagonist) square off against militaristic paranoia in a race to decode the aliens’ language before the world blows itself up.
The skin of this movie was also something the reviews prepared me for. This is the most gorgeous film, visually and sonically, that I’ve seen in a long, long while. It opens with a melancholic shot of a blue-gray lake scene through the window of the Amy Adams character’s house, and director Denis Villeneuve spends the rest of the movie developing that theme, most notably in the barrier that separates the aliens in their mist shrouded zero-gravity environment from the chamber they create to host their human visitors, so that, near the end of my first viewing, when he returned to a shot of that slate-blue lake through the window of the house, I audibly gasped.
All this was the most I had expected, and I was not disappointed. It’s enough to recommend the movie all by itself. But what I didn’t, couldn’t imagine was its flesh and blood, its beating heart.
I can’t say too much about this aspect of the movie, because it’s very much wrapped up in the secret of its big conceptual surprise, but I will say that it involves a daughter who dies young, and her mother’s ultimate embrace — nay, even her active acceptance, her choosing — of that life, both the joys and sorrows. But even as I write this, I know I’m giving you a misleading impression of what you’ll find when you watch the movie. I, too, knew about the daughter subplot going in to my first viewing, and assumed it would form some kind of psychological barrier the protagonist would have to overcome to accomplish her mission, and/or that she would learn some lesson from her work that would help to assuage her grief. (It was also possible that the connection was something simplistic, like the aliens bringing back the daughter, or the daughter turning out to be one of them or connected to them, but based on the glowing reviews that portrayed the movie as a seriously mature work of creation, I didn’t think something this cheap was possible.)
What it turned out to be was something more and other than any of this, something well beyond any guess I had, something that raised the movie to an almost spiritual level for me, into a glowing, gorgeous, glorious paean to life and its every, eternal, moment.