The Best Films of the Decade: #30. Arrival (2016)

| December 12, 2019
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Two weeks from today, the decade will come to a close and so for movie lovers like me it is an opportunity to look over the decade of movies that are left behind. Over the next few weeks I am going to count down the best films of the past 10 years from #40 to #1. My choices are personal choices swayed by nothing but the love I have for this medium. These are all great movies. These films all achieved something great. All reached for something special. They are the best of the decade . . .

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We have probably all thought about it at one time or another.   What would it be like if – or rather when – we are finally visited by an intelligent species from another world?  What would be gained once we stopped rattling political and religious sabers and let the brain trust have a crack at trying to figure out why they’re here?  What do we say?  What’s our plan of action?  Who ya gonna call?

Arrival is hell-bent on exploring those questions.  It is a brainy pebble in a big pond of idiotic naysayers.  There are alien invasion pictures of every size and shape nowadays and nearly all deal with interstellar visitors whose mission is to liquefy our skyscrapers first and our brains later.  Visitation by aliens, in reality, would be such an awesome globe-shifting event that almost any outcome is possible.  In that, narrowing such a probable event down to blowing up historical landmarks is an irredeemably bone-headed through-line that I’ve never been able to work up much excitement for.  Thankfully Arrival puts its brains ahead of its laser cannons.  You can have your Independence Day and your Battleship and your Transformers quacking nonsense, but I prefer something that reaches rather than swats.  Such films are sadly rare.

Arrival begins with the arrival (!) of 12 black Pringle-shaped spacecraft that have descended on our planet in 12 different locations.  Where they come from is a mystery.  Why they’re here is an even bigger mystery.  What is clear is that they want to communicate with us, and the forward trajectory of the film is bridging that gap.  Not satisfied to remain ominous, the alien spacecraft offers an opening through which our best linguistic experts (and, of course, heavily armed military personnel) can climb aboard and attempt to make contact.

The greatness of the story is found in the simple act of building relations with these beings through understanding as the language barriers fall bit by bit.  The ticking clock element is provided by the ships hovering over other sites and how a few have their communication breakdown both with the aliens and with the other sites.  Everyone is nervous that one tiny miscommunication could lead to a war that humans couldn’t possibly win so the tension is always on high.  With that Arrival becomes a story, not about aliens, but about the very human cause of open lines of communication.  The story builds like a mystery with little pieces revealed here and there, cracking the code not just of alien language but of our understanding of ourselves.

Arrival is a touch flawed, pulling up to an ending that is personal rather than universal, but when so many alien visitation films dumb down their intent, this one tries to find a path to enlightenment and in many ways succeeds beautifully.  I’m reminded of the rarity of intelligent science fiction, films that expand our perception of beings from another world.  My favorites are the positive onces, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and 2001: A Space Odyssey, films that reached higher and farther and imagined the evolutionary leaps that such an event might inevitably be heir to.  Arrival belongs in the same order with those films.  There are images here that are so breathtaking that they will never leave me; there are ideas here that I am left to ponder.  I was thinking about this film’s message long after the film was over.  That’s what great science fiction does, it reaches for places we never imagined before and allows us to imagine breaking free of what we know and becoming something greater than ourselves.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
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