While the credits were rolling down the screen in the theater, Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival left me a little confused, a little disappointed, and had me feeling a little cheated. Not because I didn’t understand, but because of the contradiction between the theme of the movie, and the story. Shortly after it ended, thoughts of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar slipped into my mind. I quickly realized how similar the two movies are; not because they’re both Science Fiction movies that deal with the fate of the human race, but because of the theme and message each movie was sending to the audience. Arrival and Interstellar have the same exact message, and it’s told in a way that contradicts the entire theme of both films.
Arrival is bookended by the relationship our protagonist has with her daughter. Having the movie start and, more importantly, end with this relationship gives it greater importance than the arrival of alien life on earth. It makes us believe that the title of the movie is actually referring to the arrival of her daughter. Similarly, Interstellar places huge importance on its relationship between its protagonist and the relationship he has with his daughter. Both protagonist risk the wellbeing of their daughters. In Interstellar, our protagonist’s daughter is named Murphy after a “law” that states that whatever can go wrong, will go wrong. This seems to be a shared theme with Arrival due to the protagonist also risking the wellbeing of her daughter even though she knows what is going to happen. The protagonists seem to have a clear understanding that you can not alter the outcome of what is going to happen. Thus, we have the theme and message of both movies.
This theme is heavily focused on throughout both movies, but it’s ultimately contradicted in a single scene. In Arrival, our main character is revealed to have the gift of foresight. She can see future events happen before they take place in real-time. The aliens helped her realize this gift that she has. In one scene she is literally given the answer to earth’s current problems from a future conversation she has with the president of China. She is essentially chosen by the aliens to fix the problem on her own. Similarly, in Interstellar, our protagonist is chosen by “them” and given a tool to experience four dimensions. With this tool, our protagonist is able to communicate with his daughter through time and space where she miraculously figures out that her “ghost” is her father giving her the answer to the world’s most sought after answer, saving all human life on earth in the process. So, having the theme of a movie be that you can’t change the outcome of what is going to happen, then miraculously giving the protagonist a talent or tool to change what is going to happen seems to be contradictory.
There are plenty of differences between the two movies, but the message is incredibly similar. It seems bizarre to completely contradict the entire message of your movie leading up to the climax and at the very end do something that goes against that message. However, like many people, I hold Denis Villeneuve and Christopher Nolan in very high regards. Nolan is great on a macro scale with his films, while Villeneuve is great on the micro scale. Nolan mainly focuses on the overall story-arc rather than the smaller details in the script, which is where I think Villeneuve really shines. It seems like every detail in the screenplay of Arrival told us more about the story or something involved in the story. It’s very calculated and nothing seemed to go to waste. I enjoyed Arrival. It could have been even better if the story complimented the message rather than distract from it.