It’s a great time to be a sci-fi fan. It seems to be the only genre that still produces smart, creative movies on a semi-regular basis–and they just keep on getting better. This year’s model is Arrival.
It starts by introducing us to Louise, the linguistics professor who will be the movie’s protagonist. But before we get to know her language skills, she’s shown as a mother, welcoming her brand new daughter to the world. In about five minutes, we see the daughter play in the backyard with her mom, struggle with school, grow into a rebellious teenager, get diagnosed with a rare disease, and die in a hospital bed, leaving Louise alone and grieving. This will all become incredibly important later.
But the story proper kicks off when 12 strange extraterrestrial objects land in 12 different countries around planet Earth. The world’s scientists, military leaders, and politicians are naturally very eager to find out why the aliens inside have come (and whether they’ve got any death rays), but there’s a problem: the alien creatures, dubbed “heptapods” because of their seven octopus-like limbs, don’t speak anything resembling any of our languages. As fear of the unearthly visitors spreads, Louise is recruited, along with physicist Ian, to figure out how to communicate with the heptapods who’ve landed in America before the government assumes the worst and starts shooting. But she soon finds that learning the alien language comes with…unexpected side effects.
I feel like the issue of language doesn’t come up often enough in alien movies. Most of the time, humans are too busy either blasting the aliens, smooching them or getting melted by them to really struggle with the quite realistic problems of deciphering a non-terrestrial language. If aliens ever did land on Earth, I expect we’d have to spend a few months learning how to say “hello” before we could decide whether or not to be friends. Always assuming neither the aliens nor humans subscribed to the “shoot first, ask questions later” mentality. Well, if you’ve always wanted a movie that meets the communication problem head-on, in a scientific manner, it has arrived. (Heh.) The movie also explores the various ways humans would respond to a first contact—from curiosity to outright worship to panic and fear. And of course there are parallels to the current rise in xenophobia in certain countries, complete with the obligatory jab at Fox News.
But despite its relevance to current events, this is, at bottom, entirely Louise’s story. I’ve always thought of Amy Adams as a good actress who gets stuck with a lot of bad roles, but this is one that really allows her to shine (Jeremy Renner is also in his element as the smart, sarcastic Ian). Her excitement and awe as a scientist confronted with the ultimate challenge is both believable and contagious. But as she begins to understand the two heptapods she’s talking to (dubbed “Abbott and Costello” due to their real names being unpronounceable) and their purpose in coming to Earth, her task becomes a lot more personal than she expected, resulting in a surprisingly emotional climax.
There’s a pretty huge twist near the end of this movie, and like most self-respecting sci-fi twists, it’s to do with time. I won’t say any more, except that it’s pulled off quite well and adds a whole new dimension to the story. And it left me with a lot to think about, including the numerous plot-related questions it left unresolved.
Arrival doesn’t have as much action or CGI as some of the bigger sci-fi blockbusters, but it’s still quite visually impressive. The scene where Louise and Ian first enter the alien ship and discover that gravity works a little differently inside is pretty jaw-dropping. The ship’s weird appearance and the unearthly noises its passengers make, combined with the eerie minimalist soundtrack, really drive home just how alien these visitors are. Which just makes it even more effective when the characters—and the audience—finally start to understand them. A bit.
But again, the visuals aren’t the star of this show. It’s a quiet, introspective, and ultimately quite idealistic movie with a message: that humans can accomplish great things by putting aside our differences and working together. And that it’s worthwhile to do so even when it involves pain. Oh, and also that you can totally breathe an alien atmosphere without any long-term health issues.
I have some quibbles with Arrival, as you can see, but overall I’d recommend it to anyone who enjoys smart sci-fi. It’s a slow burn that pays off nicely in the end.