4 out of 5 stars.
What would the people of Earth do if our planet was suddenly invaded by an alien race? It’s a question that has been asked by hundreds of science fiction films, with “Arrival” now joining the bunch. But “Arrival” isn’t an action movie. It isn’t about people fighting the aliens; in fact, the story barely moves outside of one location. It’s the sort of sci-fi movie we don’t get often enough nowadays, one in which conversation, not violence, is the solution.
Amy Adams stars in the film as Dr. Louise Banks, a world-renowned linguist. The film opens with a montage showing Louise raising her daughter alone, ending with her daughter dying of cancer as a preteen. Some time after, twelve mysterious spacecraft land in locations around the world. Because she has worked with the government before because her of skills at translation, Louise is asked by U.S. Army Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to join them at the spacecraft landing site in Montana to help determine why the aliens have come to Earth. Her team, which includes physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) enter the spaceship and attempt to make contact with the two creatures on board, who they refer to as heptopods because they have seven limbs (Ian more playfully nicknames them “Abbott and Costello”).
Louise quickly realizes that she may be able to communicate with the aliens using their written language, which involves a lot of complex circular symbols that they excrete from their limbs into the air. Over time Louise becomes more proficient in their language and uses it to build a relationship between the humans and aliens, but pressure from Colonel Weber to prematurely ask the question they’re ultimately trying to find the answer to creates tension not only among those on the Montana base, but among all the countries around the world that are also looking for a solution.
The success of the movie almost entirely rests on Adams’ performance, and she is radiant as always, playing a woman who no longer feels like she has much to live for, but takes on the task of saving the planet anyway. Her performance is a heart-wrenching mix of sadness, courage, and love. Renner’s more upbeat performance plays very well off her melancholy one; he could be considered the comic relief, but he’s far from the goofy sidekick. Louise may be the one the fate of the world hangs on, but Ian is the one who keeps her connected to everything and everyone else when focus becomes too narrow.
One of the neat things about “Arrival” is that almost the entire film takes place on the alien spacecraft and the surrounding military base, but that’s also a bit of a problem. The story is so contained in that one location among those few characters that we never really get a sense of the bigger picture. We know the fate of the planet depends on Louise, and the workers at the other spaceship sites around the world, finding out why the aliens are here, but the stakes never feel that high. We don’t see the effect the invasion has on everyday life and ordinary civilians around the world; heck, we don’t even get to know anybody else working at the base outside of the few main characters. The characters we do get to know are very well fleshed out because the focus is almost entirely on them, but the rest of the film suffers as a result.
Having said that, “Arrival” still does a great job building tension when it comes to Louise’s quest to learn the alien language, and later to fix the conflicts caused by the aliens’ response to the question, “Why are you here?” The concept of the alien language in itself is fascinating, and every little detail learned builds, so that when we do get a huge revelation at the end of the movie, it feels less like a twist and more like an unraveling of all that we’ve discovered so far.
The thrills in this movie are cerebral rather than physical. The film challenges the viewer to think throughout the film, but it’s the ending that leaves a lasting impression. Science fiction is a great genre for commenting on themes and issues that apply to reality while also keeping enough distance from real life to entertain, and “Arrival” achieves all that and more. It helps that it was released at a time where so much of our society is at odds with each other for various reasons; it proves that we can, in fact, all work together toward a common goal, and that shows the value of conversation to reach an end. On a less global scale, finale is melancholy, but also life-affirming. “Arrival” turns out to be as much a love story as anything else, and it assures us that it is better to choose to love and be loved, if only briefly, rather than to never take that path at all.
Runtime: 116 minutes. Rated PG-13.