As a budding cinephile in the years before the internet, I used to pore over movie guides like the late, lamented Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide, a regularly updated paperback guide to seemingly every movie in existence. Sometimes artfully economical, the best of the book’s one-paragraph reviews had a way of sticking in the mind. Take, for instance, the entry for Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb, Stanley Kubrick’s masterful Cold War satire from 1964, which Maltin‘s guide describes as seeming “better with each passing year.”
I’ve thought about that quote a lot over the years, and I’m not sure it’s entirely true. While I think Kubrick’s film is a masterpiece, there have, happily, been years when it’s looked less relevant than others. Its greatness has remained steady, but its applicability to the current political situation waxed in the years after the Cold War, when the tensions between the two nuclear superpowers eased enough that the idea of one man deciding to drop the bomb, and plunge the Earth into darkness, for insane reasons seemed further outside the realm of possibility. When I last saw the film a few years ago, it seemed as great as ever, but also more anchored to the past than before.
Good times! As Donald Trump prepares to assume the presidency, he does so with some troubling ideas about allowing more countries to join the nuclear club and talk of even more troubling notions about how and when nukes should be employed. Sometimes a movies’ immediacy can fade only to dematerialize years later. To watch Dr. Strangelove now is to be disturbed anew by its implications.
Based on Ted Chiang’s acclaimed novella The Story of Your Life, Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival would be one of the year’s best movies in any year, but watching it now it’s hard not to be overwhelmed by its Strangelove-like relevance to the current moment. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot as it’s a mystery unwrapped on its own, so let me try to explain this while keeping to broad strokes.
As the film opens, Earth is shaken by the sudden arrival of a dozen towering, shell-shaped monoliths that appear without warning at seemingly random points across the globe. As the affected nations scramble to respond, Louise, an expert linguist played by Amy Adams, is whisked to Wyoming, alongside Ian, a scientist played by Jeremy Renner, and charged with attempting to communicate with the inhabitants of the monolith hovering above a plain. Complicating the challenge: though not silent, the aliens don’t seem to have any discernible form of verbal language.
Louise and Ian’s struggle to talk to the aliens is just one way Arrival depicts the difficulty, and necessity, of communication. They must also bridge the gap between their two disciplines then convey their findings to military officers (led by Forest Whitaker). Then there’s the way to media informs, and misinforms, the public about what’s going on, which extends from cable news anchors that have to run stories with limited information to possibly panic-inducing results, to an Alex Jones-like alarmist with irresponsible need to stoke the fires of paranoia.
It’s also, shades of Strangelove, a film in which the breakdown of the lines of communication between nations pushes the world toward catastrophe. Across the globe, we’re watching governments retreat into nationalism and isolationism. From Brexit to Trump to whatever waits for France in the next election, countries have begun retreating behind figurative walls (and, in the case of Trump, trying to build a literal one). As tension builds, Arrival becomes a terrifying stand in for what can happen when governments try to deal with global problems without talking to each other, be it nuclear tension, environmental issues, or an actual first contact scenario. (Hey, it could happen.)
Many of us don’t have faith in the man just elected president, a man who’s run on a platform of governing from the gut, not listening to experts, denying the facts in front of him, surrounding himself with “yes” men, and learning as little as possible. The president remains offscreen in Arrival but filling the blank with Trump adds an extra layer of tension to the movie.
Yet it’s timely in other, more abstract ways as well, and that’s what makes it essential, and heartening viewing right now. The film grows progressively dreamier and fantastic as it progresses, for reasons that aren’t immediately apparent. Working with the remarkable cinematographer Bradford Young, Villeneuve starts blurring the line between Louise’s inner life and the reality in front of her. She becomes aware of the tremendousness of the task she has to perform, but also of this: That the joy we take from the world invites an equal measure of sorrow; that for every triumph life supplies, it answers with tragedy; and that living means embracing this or retreating into a cocoon and shutting the world away, talking to no one, communicating nothing, and letting the world spin out of control. As we look at the world in the way of the election and wonder “What do I do now?”, Arrival presents a simple answer: Do something. There’s nothing to be gained, and everything to be lost, from the alternative.