Director: Denis Villeneuve
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Run Time: 116 minutes
Arrival is sci-fi that thrills on an intimate level while exploring basic fundamental questions of humanity, language, and communication on a grand scale. And there are aliens. Director Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Sicario) is typically deliberate, bringing together immaculately composed visuals with bubbling anxiety. Where it goes and how it gets there is mesmerizing, even through some expositional redundancies and a few lulls in the extra-terrestrial conversation.
12 monolithic spaceships arrive on Earth and hover in different locations around the world, Independence Day-style. However, there’s no easily-decoded countdown to attack – there is an ominous red countdown ticker later, though its initiated by uppity, underdeveloped humans – and the aliens’ purpose remains a mystery.
Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker, good, but with a shaky New England accent) recruits expert linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) to decipher the beings’ whale-like moans and establish meaningful first contact. Granted access to the ship above a Montana plain every 18 hours, Louise and scientist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) appear before two towering squid-like visitors, who converse through the audible cries as well as smoky symbols that resemble circular Rorschach inkblots. As other world powers grow impatient and contemplate attack, Louise and Ian try to make sense of their interactions.
Arrival does something astonishing – it makes etymology academic and riveting at the same time. We see Louise is capable of using her knowledge to her advantage, impressing Weber enough to choose her for the job and later manipulating him with a story about the origin of the word “kangaroo.” It’s also fascinating when Louise diagrams the central question humans have for their visitors – “What is your purpose?” – explaining the process of first getting them to understand pronouns and building from there. Renner provides a voiceover of how the aliens come to be dubbed “Heptapods” which holds interest, though his extended explanations that fill in plot details are a little clunky.
The script by Eric Heisserer, adapted from the story Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang, keeps everything coherent. Everything that’s supposed to be, anyway. Discussions about how mastering a new language can actually rewire your brain to think differently are especially clear, and probably important.
In addition to brains, the movie also has heat and soul. Louise is processing the loss of her daughter as she translates the heptapods, and the grief, fear, and exasperation inform the character and her mission. Adams gives an excellent performance, shifting through various emotions subtly and convincingly. She’s a credible intellectual while projecting boundless depth. Her shell-shocked look through the film’s early stages takes on even more meaning when all of Arrival’s secrets (the ones it wants to tell) are revealed. Once our brains get rewired by the final act, we appreciate the journey to discovering those secrets, and Adams’s performance, even more.
Though it may unravel a bit like a puzzle-box movie, Arrival is so much more that its revelations and sticks in the brain long after the introspective and insightful conclusion. There are ideas to contemplate and work through, and have constructive, perhaps even life-affirming, discussions about. It’s a treat to translate.