Studio: Paramount Pictures
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Writer: Eric Heisserer, Ted Chiang
Producer: Shawn Levy, Dan Levine, Aaron Ryder, David Linde
Stars: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Mark O’Brien, Tzi Ma
A linguist must decode an extraterrestrial language to prevent global conflict after alien spaceships arrive on Earth.
12 shell-shaped spaceships have unexpectedly arrived on Earth, hovering over locations ranging from Montana to Shanghai, and everywhere in between where Sheena Easton had a hit song in 1980 (no, really). Who are these beings? Where are they from? Every 18 hours, each ship opens and respective countries respond by sending in experts attempting to crack communications coming from creatures obscured by fog behind a transparent barrier.
On America’s end of the collaborative decoding effort, the Army recruits linguist Louise Banks, seemingly a former single mother still recovering from the death of her daughter. Louise is partnered with theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly, whose value to the mission outside of giving Louise a fellow academic to talk to isn’t narratively clear. Though since Ian nicknames the two Montana aliens Abbott and Costello, I suppose he does contribute something of substance to the script.
The more time ticks, the more tensions rise worldwide. While Louise works to decipher Abbott and Costello’s written language of circular smoke wisps, the Chinese military readies for war. Louise doesn’t have long left to determine the true purpose behind the extraterrestrials’ arrival. Because a panicked planet is preparing to fire first and ask for forgiveness later.
Fair warning ahead for the faint of pace. “Arrival” is the kind of space-related saga whose DNA shares more in common with “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” than any alien epic of the rayguns and rocketships variety.
The film steps slowly, allowing scope to overtake the senses. What do these extraterrestrial visitors look like? What do they want? And maybe most importantly, what happens next? Through literal and figurative enormity on the screen and in the imagination, “Arrival” captures the wonder of first contact in its first moments with an authentic air of astonishment, awe, apprehension, and terror.
“Sophisticated science-fiction” sounds presumptuously pompous. The filmmakers probably don’t even hold their movie in that bright of a light. What that really means is “Arrival” may be a movie with aliens, but it is very much a story about humans. Its cinematic currency cashes in on intelligent introspection as opposed to visceral stimulation.
The fiction feels relatable, reinforcing real-world ideas that the direst danger of an alien arrival is not necessarily imminent annihilation. It is challenged religious dogma, tumbling stock markets, and the reactive fear of having our presumed dominance over universal sentience threatened.
All of the rightful praise above being said, it would be hasty to equate smart and polished with ‘masterpiece’ and ‘modern classic.’ Time determines the latter. The former on the other hand, is put out of reach by imperfect structure to well-spoken words and well-acted drama.
Where “Arrival” could use a wrench to tighten its bolts isn’t so much in the slightly inflated runtime and taffy-pull tempo. It’s in a rushed romance needing more incubation and characters whose narrative purposes could be combined for convenience. (I’m looking at you Colonel Weber and Agent Halpern, the second being a disappointing underuse of “Boardwalk Empire’s” excellent Michael Stuhlbarg.) Flawed flow and contrivance corners not cut notwithstanding, the film still hits the higher notes more critical to effectively evoking emotion through conflict.
Although “Arrival” is based on author Ted Chiang’s award-winning novella “Story of Your Life,” the movie thematically plays like a stealth update of 1951’s “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” Consider that both stories stem from setups of an interplanetary message meant for international unification, military men quick to misinterpret benevolence for aggression, and political parables of turning a tide of self-inflicted extinction toward self-aware evolution.
Then again, it may simply be that despite seven decades of separation, society’s state is so unchanged that cautionary commentary from a Cold War climate remains reflected in 21st-century science-fiction. In which case, the message “Arrival” imparts through enlightening entertainment is a timeless one, more appropriate/necessary/relevant today than perhaps ever, and similarly in danger of the world not reading between its lines.
Review Score: 75