Paramount 116 Minutes PG-13
If alien life forms land on Earth, how would we find a way to communicate? Arrival poses the question we just might face tomorrow. It’s the right time for this movie. This film says a lot our communication skills. They seem to be getting weaker and weaker. As communication between countries or communities breaks down, fear of “the other” increases. We have more and more methods of communication, yet we are more disconnected than ever.
This is much more than a science fiction thriller. Director Denis Villeneuve (Prisoner, Sicario) and writer Eric Heisserer tackle this subject (based on the short-story Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang) with intelligence and humanity rarely seen on any screens these days. The big challenge for Villeneuve was to create the look of the aliens. He wanted, what they named "hetrapods," to have a huge, strong presence, like a whale. As you watch them interact, you can almost feel the deep intelligence whales have.
Amy Adams plays Dr. Louise Banks, a brilliant linguist recruited by Forest Whitaker’s Col. Weber to figure out why these beings have landed on Earth and if their intentions are peaceful. Dr. Banks is also dealing with the tragic loss of her daughter to a rare disease. She carries this pain to her job while diving in with intense curiosity focusing on the her work.
Twelve huge, seamless, black, spheroid objects suddenly appear floating above locations around the Globe. Adams, along with theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), don hazmat suits and enter the ships. The stark simplicity of the ship’s interior along with the re-imagining of how gravity might work on another planet add to the tension of the first encounter with Abbott & Costello, the names Louise and Ian give to their alien counterparts.
The tense musical score by Jóhann Jóhannsson helps build anticipation. We don’t know if, at any moment, the visitors are about to turn into monsters. The music drives the possibility and keeps you in suspense.
With no understanding of how these visitors use language, or if they even have language, Dr. Banks begins trying to communicate with these alien creatures. Everything in this film hinges on Amy Adams as Louise. She carries the film and is on screen throughout, but we never tired of her performance.
Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker are the males in strictly supporting roles which is a nice change for any movie let alone science fiction where male leads often dominate. Adams plays the low-key heroine who rises to the occasion to not only solve riddles, but bridges understanding not only from humans to aliens, but among humans as well.
Such an intellectual story line is tough to make into a film for general audiences. But Writer Eric Heisserer found a way to create conflict and tension without having the script talk down to the audience. Smart movies usually require us to work at keeping up with the plot. That’s very true here since the space-time continuum comes into play as well as solving the communication issue. The film uses a number of flashbacks and right up to the conclusions you're led to believe you know what's going on. Then all the rules change. You may need to see this more than once.
Director Villeneuve and his team wanted the alien language to look and sound frightening. They said they wanted it to be ominous and unlike anything you've heart before. So they created a new visual language and dictionary based on circles. They accepted the challenge of creating this language and it works. Quite an achievement.
The breakdown of human communication and fear of each other brings humanity to the brink of annihilation. No aliens are needed to make humans stop listening and help them distrust each other. We already do that.
Arrival will be compared to other Sci fi classics like Contact or Close Encounters, but the image of the huge spherical spaceships reminded us more like the Monolith in Kubrick’s 2001:A Space Odyssey. Even though the aliens are impressive, no huge special effects are needed to make this a very compelling piece of art. Denis Villeneuve and Amy Adams have teamed up to create something delicate, poetic and powerful. Arrival is definitely a movie with something to say…in any language.