Aliens take off from a field circumscribed within cool blue mountains. Adam Adams and Jeremy Renner watch their departure, and their detached expressions, coupled with the vision of daybreak flooding the grass, results in a scene equal parts intimate and cinematic. In the background, the soundtrack’s violins churn expertly, and their sound is pure, precise, crystalline, but also, somehow, impossibly soft, like icicles that fracture the air before exploding into cascades of velvet on impact.
It’s a final scene that marries absolute visual and acoustic splendor with the inescapable, inscrutable sensation of grief. It reminds me of the multitudes of a word like “haunting,” which can suggest not just plain “scary,” but “unforgettable,” too. I should be enamored, and the biggest part of me wants to be; this scene, and Arrival itself, hit all the right notes. A larger-than-life epic with themes that traverse space-time, but that also acknowledge and defend the microcosms entombed in human plight, and human passion. (Interstellar, a film that I found grander in some ways, still failed in this essential regard.) And yet, though I can recognize that the scene performs exactly as intended, and pulls at the heartstrings with pinpoint accuracy, I can’t help but roll my eyes.
When Renner turns to Adams and tells her that extraterrestrials surprised him less than meeting her, I laugh unkindly at that predictable payload of emotion (“You know what surprised me the most? It wasn’t meeting them. It was meeting you.”) I imagine the screenwriter, the director, and the actor, pouring their energy into the line, and I respect the effort; but for me, a woman of evergreen jadedness, it somehow doesn’t land. I’m perversely proud of it; I regard my cynicism not as armor, but as the spear that shatters the emotional fraudulence of the world.
I look at my seventeen-year-old brother, Alex, expecting him be laughing too at the goofy expediency of it all–elegantly coiffed, impeccably dressed Hollywood artists confessing their love via perfectly delivered lines, all in a time of space aliens. But his eyes are glued to the screen. He is transfixed.
I watch him for a few moments, surprised both at his response to the scene and his apparent obliviousness to everything outside it. He is at an age known for various, occasionally contradictory traits: what I and others might summarize as “edginess.” Alex is reserved, but not uncommunicative; aloof, but not apathetic. At times, he can be dogmatic. His personality is known for periods of impenetrable silence, but also periods of blinding discursive passion. It is not always easy for him to apologize. His commitment to personal truth brushes shoulders occasionally with arrogance. He does not divulge his thoughts easily. He does not cede ground. He wields sarcasm expertly. He is at the center of a lush, private world.
I was recently seventeen, and I’ve known my brother his entire life. We are similar in that eerie, arcane way that siblings sometimes are. I presumed that these facts suggested at an inherited ability to intuit Alex’s inner nature. But today I finally understand that it was vanity on my part to believe that I understand Alex. I can’t predict his behavior, I can’t read his thoughts. My supposed intuition is just a shadow that cannot probe mystery, only project expectation. This myth–that an older sibling has a direct line into the heart of a younger sibling–has trailed me since childhood. We’re not four and eleven anymore. We’re no longer elementary school students sleepily watching the landscape from the bus together. In a flash, the veil is parted to reveal colossal castle in the sand. Now all that is left is to allow the warm, finely milled sand to fall through my slowly parting fingers.
Alex doesn’t find it cloyingly absurd that Arrival ends with an expression of love. Adolescence hasn’t embittered him. He doesn’t conceal his feelings with hard-edged cynicism. His heart does not require armor. He is capable of recognizing and honoring the vulnerable earnestness of human emotion without falling prey to the instinct to wound it. If there are any edgelords here, he isn’t one of them.