Arrival should draw more than just science fiction diehards with an engrossing movie that burns both slow and deep. Far from the us-versus-them alien movies of yore, say Independence Day, director Denis Villeneuve’s newest addition to the genre is more Cold War than War of the Worlds. This is a 21st century alien movie and it’s damn good.
Twelve UFOs, or ‘shells’ as they’re called, suddenly land at different spots around the globe leading to immediate panic. Out of their league on this matter, the US Army brings in two lead scientists to study the aliens in the shell hovering above a meadow in the Montana wilderness. Amy Adams plays subdued linguistic professor Louise Banks against Jeremy Renner’s goofy theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly.
Unlike the scientists of Jurassic Park whose dinosaur resurrection logic doesn’t even pass basic muster, Arrival centers Louise and Ian’s methodical use of the scientific method. Don’t expect a big, fiery climax with guns blazing as Colonel GT Weber (Forrest Whitaker) and the rest of the military complex in the film would have it, but rather an engaging logic puzzle more in line with a political thriller.
Revealing too much about the plot would take away from the well-paced unfolding of the story, adapted from Ted Chiang’s award-winning short story “Story of Your Life”. Arrival’s origin in literature probably explains the creative re-imagining of everything about these aliens. No more little green men speaking an almost alien dialect of human language, everything is new and must be explored. Although Louise’s work deciphering the alien language would likely take years as opposed to weeks, her realistic approach has received praise from actual linguists.
The trade off between Louise’s desire for a slow, scientifically proven certainty and the military’s immediate need for action as worldwide coalitions form, yields a relatable tension. The camera movement advancing in on Louise and the crew accentuates this sensation and disorients the audience’s perspective. Although written in 1998, fear of worldwide catastrophe still rings true for many in 2016. Science fiction is never really about an alternate reality, but rather the pressures of this one, right here.
The audience receives just enough information to get by throughout the movie, only able to put all the pieces together at the very satisfying ending. When I left this movie my brain hurt a little from pondering all the theories – scientific, political, philosophical and otherwise – brought up over the course of 116 minutes. There’s a depth to Arrival that will give any viewer something to grab hold of during the movie and hopefully afterwards too.