Arrival (United States, 2016)

November 09, 2016
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Arrival Poster

The scenario presented in Arrival isn’t new - motion pictures have been dramatizing an event of this sort almost since moving images first flickered on a big screen. We wonder about it, dream about it, imagine it, and write about it. Popular television series have been devoted to it. The mythology of one locale in Nevada has been built up around it. I’m referring to extraterrestrial contact. There are those who would argue that it has already happened but, whether their claims are to be taken seriously or not, there has never been an undeniable encounter when humankind has come face-to-face with incontrovertible evidence that, as Steven Spielberg put it, “we are not alone.”

Of course, Hollywood being Hollywood, the majority of first contact stories involve danger, invasion, battle, and destruction. Even a classic like How the Earth Stood Still is about the threat of annihilation. More recent additions into the genre include Independence Day, Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, the TV series “V”, and so on. It’s a rarity for a first contact movie to have a thoughtful, measured tone and to be concerned with realistically exploring how such a scenario might play out and what it might mean for the human race if the “visitors” were so different from us that communication and comprehension were significant barriers to interaction. Arrival is a great experience not only because it thoughtfully and intelligently dramatizes such a situation but because it assumes that audience members are thinking and paying attention as they watch it. That’s a welcome change-of-pace for a mainstream film and, if Arrival succeeds at the box office, it will shine as a beacon in favor of not dumbing down every production to appease the distracted and disinterested masses.

The aliens arrive not long after the movie begins - huge, oblong ships that hover just above the ground at twelve seemingly random locations around the globe. No one knows whether they come in peace because communication thus far isn’t possible. Although they permit people to board their ships and allow humans to see their seven-legged forms, the language of each species is unknown to the other. So, although the aliens show no hostile inclinations, a race as naturally suspicious and warlike as ours can’t help but plan for the worst.

Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is a world-renowned professor of linguistics with a tragic past. As she wanders around her beautiful house overlooking a lake, she remembers the beloved teenage daughter she lost to cancer. This experience has shaped her life, making her reserved, taciturn, and a little sad. The government, in the person of Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), comes calling, needing her help. They invite her to join a first contact team and, paired with physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), she boards the alien ship and begins the laborious process of deciphering the basics of the alien language.

There’s more to Arrival than this but to write at any length about where the movie goes and what revelations occur would be to spoil the viewer’s journey. Although communication may be at the heart of the film, the narrative segues beyond that. And human/alien exchanges aren’t the only kind of communication Arrival investigates. There’s also intra-species communication as nationalistic and xenophobic impulses create fractures in information-sharing.

The source material for Arrival, Ted Chiang’s Nebula Award-winning 1998 short story, “The Story of Your Life,” might at first seem unfilmable but director Denis Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer have found a way to do it. The essential themes about time, determinism, and language remain intact. The movie examines the intricacies and differences between spoken and written language in a manner that is not only lucid but interesting.

During a career that has spanned 17 years and garnered five Oscar nominations, Amy Adams has played a variety of quirky and serious roles, but perhaps only her character in Doubt has rivaled Louise for psychological complexity. Villeneuve intentionally deceives us about a few salient facts where Louise is concerned and Adams is complicit in this deception. It’s brilliantly conceived and executed and Adams’ performance is critical. Louise is no icon. She’s strong and independent but her hands tremble and her breathing comes in heaving gasps as the moment of truth approaches. Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker provide solid support but this is Adams’ movie.

I can think of only four other movies made in the last 40 years that have a similar level of sophistication and intelligence in their approach to connecting with the unknown: Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Abyss (Director’s Cut), Contact, and Interstellar. Spielberg, Cameron, Zemeckis, and Nolan - not bad company for French Canadian-born director Denis Villeneuve, for whom Arrival represents a distinct change-of-pace from his previous outings, Prisoners, Enemy, and Sicario. In its own way, this is just as challenging although not as grim. There’s hope in the answer to a very simple question that lies at Arrival’s core. The movie is so perfectly assembled and expertly paced that it’s impossible not to imagine Villeneuve getting an Oscar nomination. Based on the strength of his resume, and Arrival in particular, there’s every reason to be excited about his next project: Blade Runner 2049.

We don’t see serious science fiction like this nearly enough. The movie’s opening presents a credible scenario for first contact, not only in the way the aliens approach but in the way the world reacts to them. The international cooperation might at first seem refreshing but it’s littered with mistrust and parochial interests. Communication with the aliens provides a puzzle that needs solving but, as she gets closer to the truth, Louise is forced to look deep into her own soul. Why are the heptapods here? What do they want? The mysteries in Arrival run deeper than is initially apparent. Add to that a paranoid group of fanatics determined to thwart all the progress Louise makes and there’s a lot going on here.

The movie doesn’t end with Bill Pullman giving a rousing speech and a makeshift air force attacking alien ships. This resolution is more sublime and satisfying. Although Arrival is about first contact with extraterrestrials, it says more about the human experience than the creatures from another world. This is a singularly powerful movie, without question one of 2016’s best.

Arrival (United States, 2016)

Ranked #1 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 2016
Run Time: 1:56
U.S. Release Date: 2016-11-11
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Adult Themes, Profanity)
Genre: Science Fiction
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1