Arrival is a science fiction masterpiece directed by Denis Villeneuve examining how the various nations of Earth will react when aliens arrive. Twelve, ellipsoidal alien craft suddenly appear, hovering above twelve individual nations, and on a strict time schedule they open up at the bottom to allow humans entry in order to try to communicate.
This is where Louise Banks comes in, played wonderfully by Amy Adams. She is a linguistics professor, and the US military invites her on their trips inside the craft to try and interpret their language. Unfortunately, their language is spoken via gaseous pictograms—not in verbal words—so the job is not an easy one.
Alongside Banks is Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a mathematician who is supportive of Banks’ trusting interactions with the craft’s two aliens, in contrast with the military officers overseeing the meetings, led by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), who are desperate to determine if the aliens pose a military threat to Earth. This makes matters difficult for Banks, whose language understanding inspires fear that a simple linguistic misunderstanding between the humans and the aliens as they struggle to translate why the aliens are here could lead to military action.
Even more troubling, not every country interacting with the aliens is as calm and rational about intergalactic relations as America. Ironically, humans’ inability to communicate with each other leads to more problems than humans’ inability to communicate with the aliens.
The film is very somber throughout, experimenting deftly with nonlinear storytelling that dances around recurring memories of tragedy in Banks’ life. This is definitely not a blow-up-the-White-House kind of science fiction movie. The drama is much more intellectual than explosive, and the emotional arc is more concerned with the potential self-destructive character traits of humans than any kind of overtly external threat that follows the arrival of aliens.
As such, it is a brainy film that contemplates the inherently necessary though somewhat unstable military reaction intended to protect humanity. It is intriguing to watch the biological precautions used against all kinds of potential alien bacterial contamination and the militarized protocol of establishing contact. The dramatic tension ratchets up clank by clank, and there is no precedent of a previous alien arrival to determine how exactly the energy will be released.
In short, Arrival is realistic, original, and anxiety-driven. It gets into the weeds a bit about nonlinear consciousness toward the end, but it’s a bold movie. Definitely one to consider seeing on the big screen.
Contemptor grade: 10/10