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As a species we are naturally exploratory and have long reached out to find what lies beyond the horizon. With that curiosity has come speculation of what exists in realms unexplored, from the corners of our own pale blue dot to the farthest reaches of outer space. Many films throughout cinema history have dealt with that question, some by having monsters attack and others by looking for larger meaning to our place in the universe. With Arrival, it is the latter, and the result is a unique and challenging experience that earns it a place among the best in the genre.
Linguist and university professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams) comes to class only to find that nearly all her students are absent. Those that are there are equally shocked a moment later when their own smartphones begin to chime. She switches on the in-class television and learns that a number of very large objects have begun to descend around the Earth. As the world braces for the unknown, she is soon contacted by a US Army Colonel named Weber (Forest Whitaker) who enlists her services to help make contact by trying to translate something from a ship within US borders. Joining them is theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner).
What we know about Louise is that she has a daughter who as a teen passes with cancer. When that happens is of great importance. Louise is a reserved and somber woman with great intelligence. She is initially asked to work without any contact with the ship, and so refuses, saying that translation is about proximity, and to understand she must have interaction. And so that is what they offer. Flown to the nearby elliptical vessel, which floats just above the surface, she and a small crew are led up into ship, where the military have secured and already made physical contact. Louise sets out to understand their strange sounds and written language. Meanwhile, those in charge want answers fast, and other countries facing their own ships have very different solutions on how to handle them. Worldwide tensions grow and the question to why these creatures are here brings Earth nearly to the brink.
Directed by Denis Villeneuve, whose last year’s Sicario was very well-received, Arrival is a careful film, a science fiction drama that is less interested in laser beams and fighter pilots than staking its whole premise on a message more relatable to the human species than the alien one. Tolerance, bigotry, fear, ignorance, compassion and more are all layered as the meetings between the Heptapods, as they are called, and Louise, whose growing understanding of the alien language causes concerns, especially when words without context can lead to mistrust or worse. A world with no single governing body or leader makes for a first contact where few can agree. And that can be a dangerous problem.
The Heptapods themselves might not entirely be wholly original in their design, a mix of long-legged octopi-like creatures that hover in a kind of stasis, but where they do differ is with everything else. Sealed behind a sort of glass enclosure of their own configuration since their atmosphere is toxic to humans, they want to communicate, and it is their relationship with Louise as she learns their complex multi-tiered circular writing that seems to hinge on what the aliens intend to do. But as translated languages are often susceptible to subtle differences in meaning, words and phrases are interpreted differently around the world. This has dramatic consequences.
As truly compelling as the creatures are, it is instead Adams who becomes the most memorable aspect of the film, her gentle, sincere performance one of great emotional investment. As Louise engages with these travelers, she becomes possessed by visions of her daughter, even in her dreams, and so we wonder at the connection and try to find reason. When it comes and what it means is well-earned, and while it’s not played as a twist, certainly makes for a good one.
Arrival may not be a huge commercial success, it lacking the action and menace the alien invasion genre so steadfastly clings too. However, it is an affecting film that should be seen without hesitation, a work as challenging and rewarding as a few other recent projects, such as Jeff Nichols‘ Midnight Special. While it does not have the ambiguity of that film, its conclusion much more concrete, it offers a chance for possibilities and more importantly, questions about who we are and where we will go.
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Writers: Eric Heisserer, Ted Chiang
Stars: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker
Genre: Science Fiction