Despite once having tried to earn a crust reviewing gigs, plays and movies, I don’t write much about movies. These days the telly has writing like those two greats, the first respective episodes of The Sopranos and The Affair, so less need for movies. But Arrival impressed me so much I am still chewing it over. The best stories do that. They resonate and reverberate. An instantly forgotten story, a confection once tasted soon mentally discarded, is a poor story.
I say best story. It wasn’t the best film. After a brilliant opening scene that could have fronted any genre of movie – five minutes of brilliant writing which is a mini movie in itself – it developed into an intelligent but occasionally hackneyed movie: a hundred and twenty years on from the publication of War of the Worlds by HG Wells, aliens are still being served up as things with tentacles that you might find in the chiller cabinet of a sushi restaurant.
But that opening five minutes of love and loss! As an aspirant writer I had to acknowledge that a couple of Hollywood scriptwriters achieved a better written, more condensed and compelling story than I might write in a lifetime.
Arrival is not a sci-fi movie. It’s a reflection on life – and communication – told against the backdrop of alien contact. The best in the genre are – 2001; A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, ET, all were about life and death and people stuff, not face ripping baddy aliens with ray guns or Cold War paranoia. (I wonder if in Trump’s America we will see a resurgence of that 1950′s space age cowboy movie?Cue Independence Day 3, 4, 5…) As a non American, I thought Arrival was the best film on the current American psyche (walls, communication and miscommunication, let’s kick those goddam aliens out of town etc) since American Beauty.
In the early seventies three artistic events shaped my early teens: David Bowie/Ziggy Stardust, and the films 2001 and A Clockwork Orange – two directed by that most artistically visual of directors Stanley Kubrick, and one heavily influenced by both films.
In my little world I can draw a straight line from 2001 in the late sixties to Arrival in 2017, via Close Encounters and, yes, ET.
They are similar in that they use extra terrestrials as a cypher but they are really about human existence, behaviour, loves, hopes, fears and death, existentialism and evolution (or not in our human case. With Trump, Putin, Syria, ISIS, global warming, famine, North Korea, the almost fashionable misogyny we see in the media and all around us, how does evolution look to you right now?)
They differ in that 2001 starts from the bleak Cold War perspective that we have fucked it all up and now it’s time for the Supermen to take over ( cue numerous Bowie songs from the earliest albums onwards). Close Encounters is also about the banality of life without hope, but the possibility of a better life, maybe even life after death. ET kinda the same but with cuddly toy merchandise potential. Arrival is a reflection on love, loss and resurrection, on communication and connection vs miscommunication. All focus on the bigger better hopeful world beyond our hum drum, sadness soaked existence and meaningless human interchanges (the aliens talk in light, music, circles in these movies, the humans exchange bland bollocks and threats).
Another similarity is powerful symbolism and visual imagery – a black monolith, a brooding mountain, in Arrival, black hovering ellipses – but that’s a whole other essay!
There will be better films – Moonlight and Hidden Figures I am particularly looking forward to – this year but from the perspective of not just our relations with each other, but life, the universe and (the meaning of ) everything, Arrival will stay with me for a long while just as 2001 has done (I can list out almost every frame let alone scene) across a lifetime.
These days more than ever, at least since impending nuclear oblivion haunted the fifties through to the eighties, popular culture as well as higher art can show us there is more to human existence than just surviving the next bucket of shit waiting around the corner. Not bad for two hours in the dark with a big Coke and a bag of popcorn.