Don’t be misled by the movie poster and trailer, Arrival is a cerebral sci-fi thriller about the nature of time and the sequence of events in our lives. While there are visual aspects that are straight out of the Hollywood sci-fi tentpole alien invasion storyline, the film offers a slower and more thoughtful exploration of the core question that various human tribes have asked since the very first invasion: why are you here?
The mysterious space vessels appear over a dozen places around the world with no logic behind their deployment. It’s not magnetic fields. It’s not population centers, or centers of government. It’s not even a geometric pattern. The ships just appear and hover a few dozen feet above the Earth in places as diverse as the Sudan, the China Sea, and rural Montana. Far from being the imposing monoliths of 2001: A Space Odyssey, however, these ships regularly open up an access hatch that invites humans to go in and explore.
The military has cordoned off the area around the U.S. ship in Montana, but it’s scientists that are needed to figure out what’s going on, to crack the alien language – if they have one – and find out just why the ships have arrived. Meanwhile, in one of the great tropes of science fiction, the general population is going bananas and there are riots, looting and non-stop conspiracy theories, neatly told through YouTube videos and news reports.
Linguist Louise Banks (an excellent Amy Adams) is at the heart of Arrival, along with fellow scientist and theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), with their military liaison Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker). Dr. Banks is baffled by the arrival of the aliens and doesn’t at all understand why her college is completely empty, but her innate gift with languages makes her the top choice to help decipher the alien communication.
Much of the film is almost a linguists diary, as we see Banks open up communication with the aliens within the ships and begins to decipher their symbolic form of communication. As time passes our understanding of their symbols grows and deepens, seemingly exactly in parallel with the scientists from the other 11 vessels who are also trying to crack the code. Why are the aliens here?
In an unusual twist for Hollywood, Donnelly (Renner) is more eye candy and support for Banks than the far more common alternative configuration. Yes, the film really is about Dr. Banks and while initially distracting, the story is really told just as much through the increasing flashbacks of her experiences with her young daughter as with what happens in the present day. Sometimes the past can suggest, can foreshadow events in the present and those yet to happen, and that’s where Arrival becomes quite interesting.
No spoilers, but the last 5-10 minutes of the film make sitting through the occasionally boring exposition about acquisition of language and establishment of communications very worthwhile. This is a film that unfolds at a leisurely pace, the opposite of most alien arrival films where massive explosions and laser cannons are destroying everything by the end of the first reel.
The visuals are also lush and engaging, but there’s a distinct lack of tension in the film that hurts the narrative flow. The scientists have weeks and weeks to crack the language barrier with the aliens, and them suiting up to visit the alien ship and debriefing in the military tent city become far too routine. I really wanted to see more science too. A materials scientist trying to ascertain the composition of the ship’s metal, a theoretically physicist who was even slightly curious about the peculiar gravitational field of the ship (it’s inexplicable that Donnelly never even mentions it once), even a propulsion scientist figuring out how the ship could just hover above the Earth without any magnetic, radioactive or propulsion effects.
Still, even with these issues, Arrival is a solid, smart, thoughtful science fiction film that’s as much about us and how we seek to achieve win:win scenarios while fearing that everything really is a zero-sum game as it is about creepy aliens in big spaceships with unknown technologies. I recommend it, and it’s plenty beautiful to justify seeing on a big screen too.