“Arrival,” based on the short story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, is an anomaly in today’s entertainment scene. It’s an alien “invasion” movie completely devoid of action; instead it opts for consistent tension and drama. Even more notable is that “Arrival” is undoubtedly a true science fiction movie, one that tackles its heavy subject matter in clever and entertaining ways. Thankfully, grounded performances from a cast led by Amy Adams keep the movie focused on the human element of the story.
“Arrival” opens with twelve alien ships entering Earth’s atmosphere, hovering a few feet off the ground in twelve seemingly random locations across the globe. Every eighteen hours, the ships open and humanity has access to these alien visitors for brief periods of time. However, the language barrier between the two species is insurmountable.
Amy Adams plays Louise Banks, a renowned linguist who is approached by the United States government to translate recordings of the aliens. However, she decides that she needs to be able to actually interact with the aliens in order to translate and convinces Colonel Weber (Forrest Whitaker) to grant her access to the ship that is hovering over a field in Wyoming. She’s also joined by theoretical physicist Ian Connely (Jeremy Renner), who hopes to be able to communicate with the aliens through mathematics and science.
As Banks and Connely prepare to enter the ship for the first time, director Denis Villeneuve proves once again his incredible ability to build tension. The two academics quickly don hazmat suits as alarms blare across the hastily constructed research facility/military base. The alien ship looms over them as they board an almost comically slow scissor lift to access the opening. They have to contend with the warped gravity within the structure as they walk down a long dark hallway and wait for the aliens to arrive. When they do, they do not disappoint. These aliens are not Klingons or Twi’leks, portrayed by actors wearing prosthetics. They look, feel and sound truly alien, leading you to wonder if we could ever build a connection with these unnerving creatures.
That thought is certainly shared by others in the film. Arrival quickly becomes a race against time as Banks and Connely attempt to communicate with the aliens while the world descends into chaos. Panicked citizens are looting entire cities, world leaders are hesitant to share their scientists’ breakthroughs with foreign rivals and military chiefs begin to wonder if a first strike is the only option in the face of a perceived extraterrestrial threat. Besides serving as another way to build tension, this world-wide crisis heightens the stakes and does a disturbingly good job of hypothesizing how the world would react to such an event.
All of this tension builds to a boiling point in an absolutely incredible ending that takes an already fascinating movie and gives it a message that is powerful, hopeful and depressing all at the same time. It rides a very fine line of “surprising” and “completely out of the blue,” but subtle foreshadowing and exploration of certain themes make it feel completely earned by the time the credits roll.
Despite this grand story of humanity making first contact with an alien race, Villeneuve makes the wise choice of keeping the focus on the intimate and personal conflicts Banks faces as she attempts to breach the language barrier. Adams is the emotional core of the movie and does an excellent job of portraying an increasingly exhausted and frazzled Banks. However, she manages to maintain the dogged strength that makes her a character worth supporting. Additionally, Connely proves to be a worthy partner for Banks, answering her dryness and professionalism with wit and emotion as they attempt to solve the crisis in front of them.
Finally, “Arrival” earns gold stars across the board from a technical standpoint. The cinematography focuses on clean, stark environments that imbue the movie with a classical sense of foreboding. The score manages to be ominous, joyous and moving as the script calls for it. As for the script itself, “Arrival” impressively communicates several heavy and complex concepts through clever analogies and turns of phrase, even though it does tend to oversimplify Banks’ linguistic breakthroughs.
A movie about language translation has no right to be as entertaining as this. “Arrival” is a crowning achievement in the sci-fi genre, bringing a cerebral and sophisticated story into the blockbuster scene. In true science fiction tradition, it tackles big concepts and manages to make them entertaining. And like any great science fiction story, “Arrival” makes sure not to lose the heart of raw character and emotion in the form of Amy Adams’ terrific performance.