I made a bold claim this summer: “When the end of the year arrives and we start compiling our lists of the best films of the year, De Palma will be at the top of mine.” Like many of the cavalier, self-satisfied predictions made by the media about how 2016 would turn out, mine, too, has been proven catastrophically false.
A professional media specialist like you might find it laughable that someone could watch this movie – a sci-fi blockbuster about the sudden appearance of giant potato chip-shaped spaceships at scenic locations across the globe – and claim to have experienced something akin to epiphany. But it’s true. I did. I was so deeply moved by this movie that upon leaving the theater I had that rare feeling – the feeling we all seek when interacting with art – of having gained some profound new understanding of the world around me. Both its cruelty and grace.
It’s a difficult experience to defend. Particularly in a critical review, which, my colleagues have recently reminded me, should be an act of discipline towards (and not an indulgence of) one’s aesthetic subjectivity. I am self-conscious that the experience I had with this film might be impossible to reproduce. So I won’t try to describe it to you. Instead I will share with you the simple philosophical idea around which the film (for me) revolved: the experience of agony is a worthwhile price to pay for the experience of joy.
This idea is powerfully expressed through one particular element of the plot. But it wasn’t the mechanics of that plot element that got to me; I figured out the “twist” long before the characters onscreen do (which is to say, long before director Denis Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer make it explicit) and so was able to watch the pieces of the puzzle slowly come together (in fact, the reveal, delivered in subtitles, feels sort of awkward). But my epiphany had nothing to do with the satisfaction of solving a puzzle. It was the diegetic context in which that problem was solved; the thing that eventually happens to main character, the decision she must make.
And it wasn’t just the fact of that thing happening, or the consequences of that decision, but the way it was brought to life onscreen. The moments I’m talking about – which occur far away from the looming spaceships and the armies gathered around them – are so beautiful, so real, so true, so well-crafted by cinematographer Bradford Young, that they have become, in my memory, the entire film. Forget the amazing special effects, the topsy-turvy physics and cephalopod aliens and supernatural sunrise vistas—the image that sticks with me is a little girl collecting rocks on a shoreline.
It was that quiet moment (and those like it) that simultaneously crushed and inspired me. As a husband, and father, and member of the human race. And maybe that’s why Arrival feels so special: that unique commixture of being crushed and inspired. It’s so easy to make people sad; there are countless films that traffic in tragedy and heartsickness the way horror movies traffic in frights and comedies traffic in laughs. But rarely is that grief tempered with such optimism. Awful things happen in Arrival, and you’re glad that they did. Because, yes, the experience of agony is a worthwhile price to pay for the experience of joy.