Twelve unidentified flying objects enter the Earth’s orbit. An elite squad, which includes linguist, Louise Banks (Amy Adams), and a scientist, Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), is formed. Their objective: to make contact with the aliens and figure out a way to communicate with them in order to prevent or avoid a war with them.
Arrival was adapted from Ted Chiang’s novella, Story of Your Life, by screenwriter Eric Heisserer. It marks director Denis Villeneuve’s foray into the science fiction genre, preceding his forthcoming Blade Runner movie and a version of Dune, which is allegedly currently in development. Arrival features a fair share of freaky elements. It openly flirts with the horror genre, particularly through the giant octopus-like aliens and through the build up of tension, which benefits from the persistent use of bass tones to set up a suspenseful atmosphere.
Banks, the heroine of the film, has a dramatic backstory. The death of her little girl led her to retreat into a life of solitude and emptiness. Her vulnerability makes her seem like anything but the traditional science fiction heroine. Adams too plays her in a very human way, though her nervous twitches and soft-spoken ways are as reassuring as boastful, monologues of bravery. Villeneuve plays up this “alternative heroism,” as well as her centrality to the film as the point of contact between the human and alien world, by filming her approaching the aliens with cameras cautiously following her from behind. Not to mention that a love affair with Renner’s Donnelly is only suggested. Redemption, for Banks, will not be found in the arms of another man, as other females in other movies.
Ultimately, Arrival‘s ambitions far exceed that of the average science-fiction thriller. The aforementioned familiar elements, special effects, and references to Steven Spielberg’s contact drama Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and Stanley Kubrick’s existentialist 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) are nothing more than hooking devices. The entire science fiction surface conceals an inner core made up of compelling ponderings on themes of language and communication. A linear story would have been detrimental and downright wrong, which is why the film’s mysteries gradually intensify, upsetting the expectations of a standard ending. Arrival ultimately requires translation and interaction in order to be understood. As such, it represents the challenge of communication (and the implied risk of a lack of ability to communicate) in an honest and ideologically sound way; a perfect mixture of gripping escapism with a thought-provoking art house philosophical core. – ★★★★★
2016, USA | Science Fiction | Directed by – Denis Villeneuve / Produced by – Shawn Levy, Dan Levine, Aaron Ryder, David Linde / Written by – Eric Heisserer (based on Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang) / Music by – Johann Johannson / Cinematography – Bradford Young / Edited by – Joe Walker / Starring – Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Tzi Ma | Running time: 116 mins.