Now, fair warning, I saw Doctor Strange two weeks ago and elected not to review it. I saw Arrival today and decided to make this article. As a result, Arrival is fresher in my mind and I may have more to say about it.
That being said, I think there’s more to talk about with these two movies than we may realize. There may, indeed, be a reason they both became smashing successes at this specific point in time. Also, I like comparing things. For instance, both films feature primary characters who can see into the future. In Arrival, it’s the aliens (affectionately named Abbot and Costello), and in Doctor Strange, it’s the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). However, both films handle this device differently. In Doctor Strange, the Ancient One can see every possible future, and is therefore able to anticipate all possible outcomes and account for each of them. (It’s worth noting that another recent box office success, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, features a creature with this very same ability.) In Arrival, it seems as though Abbot and Costello only see one reality, and while they have some level of agency, it’s left unclear if they can truly influence the future.
As a result, both films bring up questions/observations about the nature of time itself,and therefore free will, though Strange‘s is a bit more nuanced. In Arrival, realities are, as far as we can tell, inescapable. Shang can’t give Louise his phone number unless she already called him, meaning that this interpretation of time is cyclical. After all, Louise’s ability to see the future is built on her understanding of the aliens’ language, which is literally and figuratively circular. As a representation of this, the movie begins at the beginning of one story and the end of another, and ends the other way around. In Doctor Strange’s interpretation, time is a tree, creating many branching paths with each action, though all inevitably lead to a linear end. Louise predicts the death of her daughter and, despite the many seemingly free decisions she makes throughout the movie, she never prevents this, or sees allowing it to happen as the only true means of exercising free will. The Ancient One predicts her own death through the realization that she can never see past a certain point. While the future is by no means concrete, everything has an expiration date.
Each film also has a character who feels that the soothsayer character uses her powers poorly. In Doctor Strange, Kaecilius (Mads “the Bitch” Mikkelsen) feels that the Ancient One is hypocritical for using her fortune-telling ability to extend her own life, and then refuse to let anyone else wield that power, thereby breaking her own firmly-set rules. In Arrival, Ian (Jeremy Renner) believes that Louise/Abbot and Costello did have the power to change the future, and considers their inactivity in trying to prevent the death of his daughter a heartless mistake. In both cases, the two characters break their ties as a result of this, and they each serve to introduce criticism to the aliens and the Ancient One, who otherwise appear to be omnipotent and without flaw.
That is, at least from the perspective of our younger characters who carry the torch of these future-seers and utilize it in their own unique way, foreshadowing a future where said powers will be necessary to prevent an oncoming scourge. These characters are the titular Dr. Strange, and Louise. Both of these characters are introduced right away and meet tragedy in the first several minutes of the film. Strange is appointed by the Ancient One to balance out the future tyranny of Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Louise is chosen by the aliens because she’s… there, and in order to save them from some threat three thousand years in the future. In the former case, we don’t know the magnitude of this threat until the very end of the movie, after the full credits. In the latter, we don’t know at all. Kaecilius fights Strange seeing him as blindly following the Ancient One, and Ian breaks up with Louise seeing her as blindly following the aliens.
I’ll admit I haven’t thought about the political ramifications of these two films quite as much as the philosophical ones but I’ll make some observations. All this discussion of time and will can be applied to any film, but Arrival, at its core, is about language. Its message is that we have to communicate with foreign entities to empathize with them, and we have to empathize to move forward peacefully. When it seems like things are going south in the peace talks between humans and aliens, it’s only due to miscommunication (don’t ask me how twelve different countries wound up with the same miscommunication). China is militaristic in its approach, up until Louise speaks to General Shang in his native language, telling him the words his wife told him before she died. Instead of action scenes, the film has conversation scenes. It’s really a movie that’s 100% about language, and its fundamental flaw is that it ends on a note of something else.
Doctor Strange, on the other hand, brings the conversations of time and free will to the forefront. At its core, it’s a movie about power. Strange starts the movie deriving power from the material (the physical use of his hands). He’s rich and famous, like Tony Stark, and considers the true power to be how he perceives himself. When he loses the physical use of his hands in a tragic fancy car accident, the Ancient One introduces him to a metaphysical power: in this case, light-based “magic.” The power still lies within him, still relies on perception, and is still harnessed through his hands, but he needs to step out of his own learned perception and perceive the universe for what it truly is. It isn’t until the back end of the movie that we learn that the greatest power of all is time. Strange and Kaecilius both spend the bulk of the movie not harnessing their full power, because they both make the mistake of perceiving time, rules, and life as absolute. Kaecilius follows Dormammu in his belief that people need to be separated from the universe itself in order to escape these trappings. The Ancient One teaches Strange that harnessing the power of green time magic is all you need to escape. Change your perception of time, see it as an infinitely-branching expanse of realities, and you can be even more powerful than a giant ageless face in outer space.
It’s interesting how perceiving time as an absolute is a mortal flaw of characters in Doctor Strange and a core tenet of characters in Arrival. It seems as though Strange is critiquing the very same mindset that the various creative minds behind Arrival go in with. This may seem like a pointed argument, but I can’t really say which film I’ll like more in the long run (for now, Arrival gets an A+, Strange gets an A-). Visually, Arrival is better shot, but Strange is more creative. They both have great characters, they both have great dialogue, they’re both very unique and mind-blowing in their own way. Arrival handles time travel better, Strange handles the implications of it better. I don’t know, man. They’re both really good.