How Interstellar Reaches Beyond and Arrival Falls Short
As I sit on my couch this late Thanksgiving night, I find myself scratching my head. Having an open mind, and, equally essential, a few rare open hours, I decided I would treat myself tonight to some new holiday dessert. But I speak not of my aunt’s apple pie; no, the latter was both quite familiar to me and was quite swiftly gobbled down by me at an estimated rate of three tartlets per jiffy (an impressive feat of mastication indeed). I refer, rather, to a fresh treat in the form of visual dainty. Some film critic from The Atlantic opined, I was informed by radiotelephone-missive, that the newly-released film Arrival “is precisely the kind of science fiction movie, at once epic and intimate, that Interstellar tried (and failed) to be.” Intrigued at the possibility of a film outdoing Christopher Nolan’s 2014 imaginative tour de force, I hopped on over to my local multiplex to try out the acclaimed talkie.
Humans explore. Heck, they’ve always explored. The same itch that drove voyagers to islands, to the far corners of the earth, drove them to the deep trenches of the sea, to the craters of the moon. Such accomplishments notwithstanding, as curiosity produced manifold discovery in the scientific revolution and until today, modern man finds himself wanting as ever. The fastest amongst us cannot keep up with the pace of technological invention and scientific discovery; the fattest amongst us suffer from innovation starvation, despite the creation feast that is the 21st century. No matter the development down here, there is always an ever-expanding universe out there. Abraham’s speckled firmament, outshined by today’s screens and products, is rendered more countable than ever before; and yet, modern man continues to look upward with squinted eyes toward the light-polluted sky, desperate to catch a glimpse of some star light-years away. He knows there are galaxies, planets, mountains, opportunities, mysteries out there. He knows there’s something more out there.
Still, we mostly remain grounded. When Murph begs her father to stay home on the farm, her case is compelling. Cooper (played by the superb Matthew McConaughey), Murph’s ex-pilot science-enthusiast father in Interstellar, of course accepts the opportunity of a lifetime to leave his blight-stricken earth, travel through a wormhole near Saturn, and search for a new habitable planet for the remnants of mankind. If some people desire to discover, then Cooper was born to reach for the stars. But he does not go gentle into that good night. As he drives away from the ranch, knowing that he may never see his daughter again, Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack blasting in its sublime majesty, Murph’s bitter goodbye (“If you’re leaving, just go!”) still ringing, tears stream down Cooper’s face and the faces of viewers alike. The adventurous spirit that seeks to discover new worlds is pulled back to earth by the tug of a gripping father/daughter relationship.
Interstellar was the second-greatest film released in 2014 (after Boyhood, but let’s stay on topic). In prayer-like fashion, Murph pings out messages to her father, knowing that he is listening somewhere in the cosmos beyond. Her father and the other astronauts are, in a way, like God, discreetly helping humankind from far away. The film’s visuals are gorgeous, the science is really interesting, the relationships are believable, and the stakes are high. Time itself is a huge factor as well, tying much of the film together from quiet beginning to roaring end.
Is Arrival of the same caliber as Interstellar? Well, no. Sure, it has some interesting ideas about linguistic relativity, and it’s certainly refreshing to encounter a film about alien invasion that doesn’t jump straight to yippie ki-yay warfare. And with neat special effects and a convincing Amy Adams in the lead, it’s probably even worth watching. But overall, Arrival stretches too wide without cutting all that deep. In its ambition, it is only minimally compelling in the many topics it attempts to dissect in under two hours. By jumping straight to chaotic “the aliens are here” in the first five minutes, the protagonists remain essentially strangers to the audience. The theme of communication and the related motif of allied countries “disconnecting” from each other is interesting, as are the ideas of circular causality due to nonlinear time, destiny conflicting with free will, a semi-surprising plot twist, and coping with the death of a child. Each of these elements has potential to be a central plot in and of itself. The salad of all these diluted subjects together, though, yields a dry, bland, raw result.
Whereas Interstellar taps into the innate desire to reach way (way!) beyond usual horizons, Arrival just… well, it kind of just arrives. The latter, both in literal plot and in inspiration potential, is simply too earthbound. Instead of stimulating a sense of awe about how far humanity can reach, how loving relationships can stand the test of time and space, Arrival induces mostly confusion about what exactly to think. The story in its entirety is here on planet earth, leaving next to nothing to the imagination.
After watching Arrival, I look not up at the stars. I lie not in bed for hours contemplating the big questions of the universe. I just sit here on my couch scratching my head.