Arrival (2016): Emotional Intimacy Within Sci-Fi


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I have been trying to write about Arrival but I keep failing.

It’s an intense slow burn. At first, I didn’t quite like it. I didn’t feel like I got it. I categorized it in the genre of cold, distant science fiction that has been popularized lately (all of which I have enjoyed: Midnight Special, Interstellar, even The Martian) and left it at that, chalking the critical acclaim up to the steely touch of a logical narrative, a new approach to mature storytelling.

But then the humans met the aliens, and I realized I was wrong.

This is not a distant film, holding humanity away from the viewer. It is one of the most human I have seen.


Image from Esquire.

When Amy Adams’ character removes her protective suit to stand, blinded by inorganic light, in front of the aliens, an actor has never appeared more human.

In addition, although the film looks epic, this global scale does not come at the cost of intimacy.

Comparisons to 2001 and Close Encounters are relevant and apt. But instead of a broad portrayal of the universe, the film opens and closes with the most personal of moments. The audience is gifted not with an image of an entire Earth, but with a single character, her experience, and her life as it stands outside of the event covered in the two hours of Arrival.

What makes us human?

Is it our planet, our language?

This film would posit that the answer is something simpler.

What makes us human is our pain, and our desire to live despite it.

Arrival (2016): Emotional Intimacy Within Sci-Fi