Stephen David Miller

Startup cofounder, AI researcher, podcaster, person, etc.

Review: Arrival

In the best science fiction, science is an excuse and fiction is a buffer. An excuse to present a character with an impossible scenario, and a buffer where ideas can open and grow. When the truth inevitably sinks in — that you are the character, and the impossible scenario is your existence — both fade to the background. “How” and “what” are means to an end; they matter only insofar as they wall off that garden. If they’re hokey, or grandiose, or assert themselves too eagerly, they distract from the ideas they were built to protect. And if the ideas themselves fail to bear fruit, the whole thing dissolves into empty spectacle. That’s why Interstellar was such a big disappointment: it placed too much emphasis on a maximalist “what”, then forced in a “why” that rang hollow. Without a core, it crumbled.

Arrival succeeds wonderfully by that definition: it presents a fascinating scenario, gives its ramifications ample room to flourish, then goes for the jugular. In ways that will become self-evident when you watch it, it succeeds precisely where Interstellar failed. But what left me breathless was how many other, contradictory ways it succeeded on the side. In the sense that minimalism is a virtue, this is a minimalist film: CG is used sparingly and to haunting effect, and exposition never threatens to trip up its emotional rhythm. In many ways, though, this is also a maximalist spectacle. It’s a hypnotic fugue through memory and loss, with a heavy dose of Terrance Malick and hints of Eternal Sunshine. The opening nearly brought me to tears, and it only pays off more as the story unfolds. It’s also a gripping, anxiety-riddled exercise in building dread; as masterful as any in Sicario, but with the critical human element Villeneuve’s last outing desperately lacked. Amy Adams is wonderful here, and even if she’s the only real character to be found, she’s more than enough. It’s also a rousing crowd-pleaser about ingenuity and the oneness of things; heavy shades of Contact and Close Encounters with a decidedly more mystical hue. It’s visually gorgeous. It’s emotionally profound. Its themes run deep and borderline zen, brimming with symbols that will reward repeat viewings.

If it sounds like I’m talking about some mind-blowing reveal, please know that I’m not. There are literal twists to be had, of course, and you’ll love them or hate them depending on your tolerance for “what”s and “how”s. But this isn’t a Nolan flick, thankfully: it’s not meant to strike that chord. The true heartbeat of the film is emotional, not literal, and its conclusion plays out well before the credits roll. A truth which ripples and recurs through subtext and text, leaving accents and notches on one living thing. It’d be a shame to get caught up in a point or direction. Lose yourself in the whole of it.

I loved this film, and I loved being able to have this conversation moments after the credits rolled.

See my review on Letterboxd