Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival is the kind of brainy, science-based sci-fi you’d expect from such a visionary (that may be a strange comment in concept, but it’s sensical once you’ve screened his alien drama). Like good, thought-provoking sci-fi fodder, Villeneuve launches into realms of political and social satire by way of unexpected means. This is not an invasion film – it’s a study of humanity from the perspective of eyeless beings in a hovering black pod. No big Independence Day action sequences or comedic Paul-like interactions. Villeneuve starts and ends his film with human interaction, because that’s the real focus here. Not slimy extraterrestrials or phaser beams. Just true, behavioral interactions.
Amy Adams stars as Dr. Louise Banks, a linguistics professor whose life changes forever when an alien race enters our atmosphere. With attendance in her classes at an all-time low and the president calling a State Of Emergency, Louise accepts a governmental position at the US landing site in Montana. Together, with the help of scientist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), Louise is tasked with establishing contact and uncovering the alien’s true intentions. It’s a slow and tedious process – much to the chagrin of head honcho Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) – but Louise’s progress is unparalleled. Session by session, she inches closer to understanding their foreign language, but can she crack the other-worldly code before more paranoid nations start a universal war?
First and foremost, you’re in for an unexpectedly interesting thriller about linguistics here. Maybe I find that more interesting than most because I work in the translations industry by day (blast, my identity is revealed!), but Villeneuve surprisingly writes-up a taught, suspenseful “threat” that’s investigated by leveraging the power of theories, formulas and cranial deduction. Sounds action-packed, right? Inky symbols are a gateway to understanding, which eventually leads to real warnings about our inability to work together as a collective, global whole. Language is universal, yet it’s also a barrier – a puzzle worth solving, told through sophistication and big words that are thankfully explained.
Further than intelligent dialogue, writer Eric Heisserer is able to tap into an extremely emotional core buried deep inside Arrival. Besides obvious questions about apocalyptic doom, Louise is also dealing with the death of her young daughter (Hannah) due to a rare disease. Her investment in an alien language becomes more about the connection to her daughter’s lost flame than it is about saving Earth, as dreams (or nightmares) bring Louise back to searing memories featuring Hannah’s smiling face. We not only witness Louise’s investment in her military job, but feel the doctor’s pain as she’s sucked back into a darkness that somehow becomes teathered to the ultimate deciphering of feedback noises being emitted from floating hectapods.
Arrival‘s emotionality, by and large, is thanks to Amy Adams as Dr. Louise Banks. The actress gets lost in her world of symbols, sounds and patterns, so much so that Renner’s character reminds of a theory about rewiring your brain when becoming obsessed with a new language. There are other more cosmic – and unfathomable – explanations for Louise’s constant visions, but Ian’s suggestions also grounds suspense in a realm of reality. Adams always displays such a dire expression, only emphasized more by Jóhann Jóhannsson’s weepy, string-heavy orchestral score. Renner plays cool and personable to Adams’ more distant gaze, but together the duo makes us care – and more importantly ENJOY – hypotheses and problem solving with such gargantuan stakes.
To a lesser degree, some of the expected social conflicts are a bit heavy-handed. Villeneuve cuts back-and-forth between preachy news anchors and online radicals proclaiming end-times prophecies, going as far as to turn some military officials rogue. It’s our age-old fear of uncertainty that abolishes any sense of sanity, which seeps its way into Arrival during a sometimes odd ending that rockets through wrapped-up explanations suffering from a coincidental neatness. It’s nothing worth getting into and spoiling, but certain dialogue exchanges deserve a tremendous laugh – even though I’m not sure comedy was Villeneuve’s intention.
Either way, Arrival is a though-provoking, socially responsible sci-fi flick that somewhat erases the memory of Independence Day: Resurgence, even though the two films couldn’t be more opposite. We’ve seen enough space-fighting, alien-bashing action recently to wish for something a bit different, and Denis Villeneuve’s team gladly delivers. The director provides us with tension through discovery, and suspense through understanding (or lack thereof) – something meaty to chew on instead of expected take-over generics (PEW PEW, BANG BANG!). Unlock your brain and soak this one in, it’s worth the few lectures that might actually teach you a thing or two.
Arrival challenges viewers to a brainier sci-fi conundrum than they're used to, which makes for an intellectual breath of fresh air.