Linguistics professor Louise Banks (played by Amy Adams) leads an elite team of investigators when gigantic vessels enter Earth’s atmosphere and hover over 12 locations around the world. As nations teeter on the verge of global war, Banks and team race the clock to find a path to communicate with the extraterrestrials. Banks takes a chance on behalf of all humanity and her choice will either save mankind or plunge the world into war.
This movie isn’t bogged down in outpourings of unintelligible scientific theory through dialogue. The science is a given; the explanations inescapably plain language. No one is arguing that science isn’t the way or questioning scientific truths considering the alien arrival. In fact, if you’re not careful, you might miss how very rooted in scientific theory this movie is. The science is the foundation on which the work of the movie happens. Once conversation between Donnelly and a fellow mathematics expert casually reveals alien recognition of our mathematical concepts. This elite team works together facing what could be the crisis to end all crisis and science and language are the tools necessary to guide us through with any chance at survival. It’s a moment for hard science and social science fans to get a wee bit giddy; while keeping the movie accessible to everyone.
Arrival begins with a voice (Amy Adams) speaking of beginnings and endings. We watch as she talks of joy and (re)lives a horrible and deeply painful tragedy. The movie segues smoothly to present day Dr. Banks at work on campus the day “they” arrive. The look and feel of the scenes are vivid, almost entrancing.
The cinematography gives everything an ethereal feel to everything pulling you in to each moment as though you’re truly one of the crowd watching stunned as events unfold. Dr. Banks’ is disturbingly calm when a military Colonel (Forest Whitaker) approaches her requesting a translation of a “recording.” Until this moment, Dr. Banks’ seems soft, pliable. When pushed to draw conclusions about what she’s heard without being given answers to questions she believed vital – but the Colonel sees as attempts to manipulate him into taking her to the arrival site – to making a useful assessment; Dr. Banks stands her ground. She erupts from her numbness to throw out a challenge at the Colonel’s back as he exits her office. It’s your first hint that mayhap there’s more to Dr. Banks than appearance leads one to believe. Her introduction to the team, and to Dr. Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) happens on a midnight ride through the sky. An over-reaching theme of the movie is deftly if simply introduced: Banks’ life’s work places language at the basis of everything; the first weapon in war whereas Donnelly scoffs claiming the entire premise to be wrongheaded and posits that in fact science is in fact what anchors us to bedrock.
Everything unfolds at a steady but inexorable pace with an increasing sense of urgency with every discovery, or set back. The director, Denis Villeneuve, lures the audience further with glimpses of Banks’ memories that seem to confuse just as much as the assist Dr. Banks in her work all against a backdrop of frantic populations and paranoid world leaders demanding to know what “they” want. It adds a layer to the story drawing attention to not only Dr. Banks’ role as translator but as a bridge between science and the senses. Her fate begins to feel as vital as the outcome of her task as alien communicator. Arrival is at its bedrock a movie about communication and commonality. It’s about language and meaning. It’s collaboration and cooperation. It’s about setting aside fear and human hubris of trying to interpret the actions of an alien species through the lens of our motivations and history.
The movie deviates from the source material (I suggest you pick up a copy of Stories of Your Life) but only in ways that allow for good storytelling and more opportunity to explore questions about the nature of choice. The casting and acting are equally great. Although there are moments where the disconnect between Dr. Banks and Dr. Connelly from the rest of the crew is a bit too obvious. There are moments when you wish for more perspectives beyond Banks’ lens particularly as you begin to realize she might just be an unreliable and inconsistent narrator. But Villeneuve makes sharp choices drawing on the identifiable elements from the current societal climate for punches of realistic hysteria playing out in the streets and glimpses of the vitriolic rhetoric pushing for a “show of force” by radio personalities and news media. He creates an environment where the inevitable breakdown between mission and mankind drives home the point that we are sometimes our own worst enemy.
This is not your typical humanity unites to fight the coming alien invasion movie. Matter of fact, it’s not like any “aliens come to Earth” movie you’ve likely seen on the big screen in the past dozen years. It’s beautiful with a haunting score (that I’m totally buying). It’s a thinking, feeling sci-fi flick with a unique subtle edge. I enjoyed this move immensely and recommend it as a break from the standard sci-fi fare.
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
When mysterious spacecraft touch down across the globe, an elite team – lead by expert linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) – are brought together to investigate. As mankind teeters on the verge of global war, Banks and the team race against time for answers – and to find them, she will take a chance that could threaten her life, and quite possibly humanity.
Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker
Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
Screenplay by: Eric Heisserer