People are going to have very different reactions to “The Arrival,” a new science fiction film about mankind’s first contact with life from ... somewhere else.
Some are going to hate it; others are going to love it. Where you fall on the spectrum will depend on your willingness to embrace a movie that has no interest in feeding your expectations but rather wants to deepen your understanding of language.
One of the trailers for “The Arrival” tried to make it look like a takeoff of “Independence Day.” This is unfortunate. If you go in hoping to see a stock alien invasion film, you’re going to be disappointed. There are no laser guns, evil ETs, or exploding planets.
Instead, “The Arrival” is an examination of the challenges involved in communicating with an other-worldly species. Once they’re here, how do we say hello?
Dr. Louise Banks is the one tasked with figuring that out. Played with nuanced perfection by Amy Adams, Banks is a university professor who specializes in linguistics. When 12 alien spacecraft appear at seemingly random spots around the globe, Colonel Weber, a senior U.S. military officer, recruits Banks and mathematician Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to establish a line of communication.
Banks says this won’t be easy. Before asking the beings where they’re from and why they’re here, she must first determine if they even understand what a question is. Since the creatures communicate using whale-like sounds and a written language that looks like a coffee cup stain, Banks and Donnelly have a very tall mountain to climb.
You might be thinking “The Arrival” sounds boring. Who wants to watch two species figure out how to shake hands? But it’s not.
I don’t think I’m giving away any secrets by saying Banks gradually unravels the mystery of how the beings communicate. As she does, she begins to see time as the visitors do.
Within that process of unfolding revelation, “The Arrival” reveals itself to be a complex and layered work. In adapting author Ted Chang’s short story, “Story of Your Life,” screenwriter Eric Heisserer deftly handled multiple themes, from our perception of time to the deterministic nature of human language and how seeing time and language from a different perspective can shift our consciousness.
Heisserer also weaves the themes of conflict and loss into this multifaceted tapestry, and in doing so penned the richest and most thoughtful science fiction script since Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar.”
Director Denis Villeneuve (“Sicario,” “Prisoners”) handles these themes with skill and grace while engaging his viewers visually. “The Arrival” has a dreamy, almost hypnotic look, from the wide shots of an egg-shaped vessel hovering over fog pouring off a Montana mountain to the truly alien design of the beings themselves, which look like they were lifted out of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos.
While the interior of the ship is featureless, Villeneuve uses the lack of visual distractions to fashion several tense scenes of interaction between the humans and their visitors.
Although “The Arrival” is concerned with more than plot, it does have a destination. As China, Russia, and the U.S. begin to grow suspicious of the visitors, each nation begins to plan its own military response. This forces Banks to take risks in order to break through the language barrier so she can determine why they have come.
But even within this conventional aspect of the film, Villeneuve and Heisserer conjure a few surprises that give the final scenes a strong punch.
Villeneuve’s best moment as the director of “The Arrival” comes at the end as he uses the language of editing to communicate the changes Banks has experienced as a result of her close encounter with the beings. Paying close attention to what the last scene shows and how those shots are put together will expand your understanding of the movie.
I love that Villeneuve resisted the temptation to use dialogue to explain what happened and instead had confidence in his ability to show what happened and in the audience to grasp it.
I end with Adams. All I can think to do is heap superlatives on her. While that might be lazy on my part, she would deserve them all. She delivers a truly substantive performance, one in which she effectively balanced the mechanics of the story with the deeply affecting emotional aspects of her character’s journey.
Somehow, she and Villeneuve created an intimate connection between Banks and the audience that made me feel as though I had walked that path with her.
It’s been a long time since I’ve been as drawn into the screen while watching a movie as I was during “The Arrival.” But remember: this is not a film everyone is going to love. It’s slow, thoughtful and has a different agenda and destination than pulp sci-fi.
If this intrigues you, see it at a theater. If not, that’s OK. But I believe you’ll be missing one of the best movies of the year.