Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Tzi Ma
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Writer: Eric Heisserer
One of the lesser cinematic experiences I had this year came from watching Independence Day: Resurgence, a shameless crash grab that was stupid, dull and nonsensical. Now, as we approach the end of 2016, comes the movie’s perfect antithesis. Arrival, also a movie about aliens coming to Earth (whether or not it’s an invasion is unclear), is everything that Resurgence is not. I don’t only mean this in terms of quality, although it is to be sure a superior movie in every way. I also mean this in how the film chooses to approach its subject. While Resurgence follows the typical Hollywood formula of casting the aliens as generic, faceless baddies who are defeated in the end through force and might, Arrival is a film that celebrates reason, thought and empathy. Rather than having the American military leading the charge and saving the day, the solution is instead found in science and communication and is implemented through the careful and challenging process of collaboration. This is a great film with a great message and I am so glad it came out this year.
When twelve extra-terrestrial spacecrafts appear all around Earth, Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), one of the Earth’s foremost experts in linguistics, is enlisted by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to help the US military. Working with Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a theoretical physicist, she must establish a system of communication with the aliens and find out who they are, where they come from, and why they are here. When they enter the craft they are greeted by two squid-like aliens whom they christen Abbott and Costello (whose most famous sketch is appropriately about a linguistic miscommunication). Banks discovers that the aliens have a written language in the form of circular symbols and uses them to establish a basic vocabulary. As she becomes more versed in the language Banks starts having vivid dreams, most of them about her daughter whose tragic death is a source of great pain and sorrow. As the perception of the alien threat grows and draws humanity closer to declaring an all-out war, Banks and her team must take a desperate chance in order to find the answers that they seek.
Arrival is a thinking man’s sci-fi that stimulates and astounds as it challenges its viewers with deep and thought-provoking questions. We are invited to consider the psychology of thought, reason and morality, the philosophy of faith, knowledge and meaning, and the very natures of time, language and the human mind. It approaches its story with the utmost sophistication as the characters set out to meet this ambiguous presence with logic and caution. While the apprehensive Agent Halpern (Michael Stuhlbarg) would prefer to know straight up who these aliens are and what they want, Banks explains that such questions are useless without an understanding of how these beings think. Do they have a concept of purpose and intent? Do they consider themselves as individuals or as a collective? Do they even understand what a question is? Such questions are paramount when the risk of even the slightest miscommunication could have disastrous global consequences.
In this role Adams continues to prove why she is one of the best actresses in Hollywood today. In Banks she conveys a quiet yet strong sense of fascination and determination that becomes more potent as her search for knowledge and understanding intensifies. The more she learns about the alien language, the more it affects her way of thinking and perception of reality. There is also an affective emotional core tying her to this task as her work evokes tragic memories of her daughter. Villeneuve does a particularly good job of representing the distortive state of Banks’ mind as her present, memories and dreams all seem to blend into one another. His use of CGI is modest, allowing the film to feel all the more authentic, and his handling of the suspense is expert (with one particularly explosive scene that no doubt would have impressed Hitchcock).
Arrival is a smart, layered and moving film with echoes of Contact and Close Encounters of the Third Kind that thrills, stimulates and inspires. It is a subdued and contemplative form of science-fiction of a calibre that we only get to see one or two times per year (Midnight Special is the other one). The moment when this film truly shines is in the climax following a revelation which turns our very perception of the plot upside down. This is a film that will certainly benefit from multiple viewings and I suspect it is one that will be studied by students of the social sciences as well as film students for a long time to come. Furthermore Arrival is a film that encapsulates the intrinsic values of knowledge, compassion, faith, cooperation and understanding, ideals that seem more distant with each passing day. It raises many challenging and important questions but does not try to answer them all because otherwise there’d be no room for contemplation. This film believes in humanity’s ability to change and adapt, something we can only do if we are willing to listen, consider, and be challenged. This is a great film that came out at a time when it was most needed.