Denis Villeneuve’s carefully constructed alien invasion pic Arrival is as notable for what it does as for what it avoids. It risks that linguistic research and the probing of the human soul can be swapped out for bombastic clashes of military might and still hold an audience’s attention. It’s also surprisingly graceful science fiction that doesn’t lose sight of its human element, as the French Canadian Villeneuve continues his winning streak (Sicario, Enemy, Prisoners) with a little (okay, a lot) of inspiration from the king of clockwork movies – Christopher Nolan.
Arrival‘s world is much like our own and the sudden appearance of a dozen extraterrestial crafts around the globe throws the planet into disarray. News reports detail the oblong UFOs arrival and questions their motives as the world stops to witness a pivotal moment (echoing 9/11, as seemingly all modern disaster-type movies must). The slow sense of building mystery and dread is meticulous, helped by the washed out colour palate and a brooding, atmospheric score from Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson (who brought a similar but even more menacing vibe to last year’s Sicario).
Our entry point into this crisis is world-class linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams), whose aloofness is on display when she belatedly realizes aliens have arrived after no one shows up for her college lecture. She’s recruited by no-nonsense military man Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) who, after some convincing, whisks her away to the site of the lone American UFO landing in Montana so she can attempt first contact with these visitors.
Banks is tasked with figuring out why the aliens are here by doing what we often take for granted – communicating clearly. Are they friend or foe? Do they herald the next step in human evolution or our imminent extinction? Helping her is mathematician Ian Donnelly who represents the more left-brained and logical approach, and when they first enter the alien craft there’s a real sense of awe. The towering ships distort gravity in their interior and their simple designs are truly odd and otherworldly. That sense of true alien-ness extends to the ETs themselves, who owe a debt to other designs. I’d wager H.P. Lovecraft and this movie’s polar opposite, Independence Day, rank as influences.
Banks and Donnelly take an intellectual approach to the problem while their efforts are hindered by the ticking clock of complex geo-political relationships as other countries become increasingly distrustful of each other. Russia attempts to silence its citizens to keep the alien’s secrets intact, while China sees a possibility to weaponize their knowledge. Michael Stuhlbarg plays a pesky agent who acts as a stand-in for the American government’s worst impulses, and the pressure builds on Banks as she struggles to make sense of the situation.
Even though the world’s fate is at stake, the focus is kept tight on the handful of main characters as, like recent sci-fi movies like The Martian and Interstellar, the leads try to think and theorize their way out of trouble by substituting brains for brawn. There’s a thrilling sense of discovery and pace kept up throughout, as linguistic theories are made simple and easy to follow. There’s also a mind-bending psychological element, as Banks’ grip on reality seems to weaken in the face of such an unknown and the aliens start to penetrate her sub-conscious.
As reality starts to peel away, the comparisons to Nolan’s Interstellar become more clear as both movies place normal people in extraordinary circumstances and see how they would react. What happens when everything you thought you knew has changed? You put one foot in front of the other and start to figure it out as the real work begins. Banks’ predecessor is being wheeled out on a gurney when she arrives, a victim of seeing their world and belief system flipped upside-down. Amy Adam’s character is, despite past traumas, made of stronger stuff and she’s the resilient heart of the movie.
Arrival shows that the act of staving off despair and finding that common ground is what’s critical to moving forward. When faced with the unknown and possibly dangerous, our best offense is communication. Yes, language can be a barrier. It can be twisted and perverted, inciting violence and confusion. It’s also the most effective tool we have to understand our world and beyond.
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Runtime: 116 minutes