Directed by Denis Villeneuve. Starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Tzi Ma, Mark O'Brien, Joe Cobden, Russell Yuen, Nathaly Thibault, Pat Kiely, Julian Casey, Larry Day, Shawn Campbell. Written by Eric Heisserer.
One of the most realistic depictions of an alien encounter on Earth ever to come out of Hollywood can be savored in Arrival, the latest film from director Denis Villeneuve, adapted by Eric Heisserer (Lights Out) from the short story The Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang.
The premise is familiar: alien spaceships approach Earth, and hover over various locations around the globe as people watch with awe and fear and trepidation. The very same setup was memorably utilized in the 1996 blockbuster Independence Day.
But that’s about where similarities between Arrival and the typical alien invasion movie end.
Just how realistic is this movie, which features seven-legged CGI creatures squirting floating goo out of their tentacle-like appendages?
Well, about three-quarters of the film is dedicated to showing exactly how we communicate with the alien creatures, and coordinate efforts to understand their presence in locations across the globe.
Amy Adams stars as Dr. Louise Banks, a university linguistics professor brought in to help talk to the creatures. It’s not as easy as you might expect: Banks uses examples of miscommunication between Europeans and aboriginals that led to some catastrophic results. I was thinking more along the lines of humans attempting to talk to dolphins or apes (and yeah, we’re the apes).
Forest Whitaker is excellent as the grounded, level-headed military Colonel who brings Banks to a floating ship hovering above a Montana field; Jeremy Renner plays Ian Donnelly, a theoretical scientist who accompanies the linguist to the alien meetings, and Michael Stuhlbarg is a CIA official wary of their presence – for perfectly logical reasons. This is the rare movie where there are no villains, and everyone has a reasoned perspective.
But throughout most of the movie, rather than humanity banding together to expel the alien threat, the mere appearance of these ships in the skies drives mankind further apart. The United States, Australia, Russia, China, and other countries communicating with the creatures initially share information with each other to solve the problem, but fear eventually backs each country into a Cold War corner.
I loved the matter-of-fact treatment of the premise that Arrival brings to the table, and I especially dug a climactic reveal which came as a genuine surprise. That’s a rare feat these days.
It should be noted that while the film is presented in an entirely realistic manner, it also uses familiar storytelling tropes to drive the narrative, especially in later scenes. They clash with the ambiguous, dreamlike – but real-feeling – nature of the rest of the movie.
Director Villeneuve struggled with the same issue – Hollywood clichés that are out of place in an otherwise real-world scenario – in his previous movies, Sicario and Prisoners. Those films overcame such concerns, however, and so does this one – to an even greater degree. It’s the director’s best American film to date.
Ultimately, Arrival doesn’t seem to clearly answer many of the questions it raises, which might be a turnoff for some viewers. Just what was the whole point of the alien invasion, anyway?
But Arrival is a rare mainstream science fiction film that treats otherworldly concepts (which aren’t limited to the aliens) with care and attention and a critical eye. It’s not a perfect movie, but it’s one of the most provocative and discussion-worthy Hollywood films of the year.
Please note! One crucial moment of dialogue in the film is communicated via an alien language, and subtitled only in Czech in local cinemas.