After all of its hype since its world premiere at the 73rd Venice Film Festival, in September, Arrival is likely to leave some disappointed. But it shouldn’t. Though far from perfect, Arrival is not a weak film. In fact, this impressive but sweet science fiction movie, about the sudden arrival of 12 alien spaceships hovering above seemingly random locations around the globe, has a new kind of resonance considering the recent — to some surprising — election of Donald Trump for U.S. president.
Just as soon as the alien spacecraft, or “shells” as they are referenced in the film, arrive so do the tanks and missile launchers. However, these UFOs, which look like three-dimensional parenthesis made of stone, do not appear to be weaponized at all. The film touches on the expected questions of whether they come in peace and assurances from high-ranking officials that “We have prepared for scenarios like this.” However, beyond the obvious metaphor of aliens as the Other, and the violent skepticism with which they are met, the audience should focus more on the film’s intimate opening. It introduces the viewer to Dr. Louise Banks (the always enchanting Amy Adams). Her voice over, in darkness, sets you up to consider memory and perspective, a clue that pays off when the film veers toward the metaphysical, made possible by her pending encounter with the aliens inside the shells.
Arrival may be Quebecois director Denis Villeneuve strongest movie yet. With a screenplay written by Eric Heisserer based on a story by Ted Chiang, which offers the more insightful title of “Story of Your Life,” Villeneuve reveals more soul than any of his prior films (caveat: I have only not seen either his first or third films). It’s his least cynical and formalist of films yet. The movie even opens with a melancholy orchestral score and a shallow focus on Dr. Banks, who is revealed as a mother alone, her young daughter taken by cancer and no father in the picture. With little to lose, she takes up an offer by a U.S. colonel (Forest Whitaker) to use her expertise in linguistics to try and communicate with the aliens inside the shells.
Villeneuve balances the vulnerability of this hurt but strong woman with the wonder of alien encounter. Meanwhile, there is a sincere meet-cute on a military helicopter with Jeremy Renner’s scientist Ian Donnelly, where the two experts reveal profound knowledge in their fields of study with some playful intellectual sparring. Meanwhile, the smooth stone shell hovering near the foothills of Montana appears through a mist. Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score, featuring ominously sluggish bass and rumbling percussion against deep, Eastern flute sounds, reflects the alien quality as the shell comes to focus.
Villeneuve makes great effort to make the aliens as otherworldly as possible. When the scientists and soldiers enter the shell, it’s like nothing ever to appear on film. Using some smart editing and zoom effects that will give some in the audience a sense of vertigo, they float and jump into a chamber inside to meet the aliens. Beyond the appearance of these shells, not to mention the music that accompanies them, are the lumbering critters inside, referred to by Donnelly as “heptapods,” which should offer a clue as to their appearance. These creatures also don’t speak as much as creak, thrum and groan (much like Jóhannsson’s score) and offer misty temporary hieroglyphics from extended tendrils that Dr. Banks must learn in order to communicate with them.
The film dwells a lot on Dr. Banks’ efforts to open a dialogue with the heptapods. There is a lot of reasoning to communicate with the edgy military folks around her (of course), and the film drags while offering these varying perspectives. Adding to some of the mystery of communication is why a caged finch is present in the shell with the scientists and soldiers, though there are cutaways hinting that maybe sounds of human dialogue is mixing with the chirps of the bird, which could lead to miscommunication between human and heptapod. However, this is never clarified.
Arrival dwells maybe too much on the drama of translation long after making its point, and it’s bound to test the audience’s patience. There’s also a subplot that detracts from Dr. Banks’ perspective, which Villeneuve makes great efforts to present, featuring a soldier watching too much crackpot propaganda on the internet. The film is strongest when offering parallel cutaways to Dr. Banks as a mother, which mixes nicely with ruminations of language, time and even déjà vu. The great reveal at the end reflects back on all of what you have seen on a metaphysical level, transforming the personal misery of Dr. Banks into something beautifully hopeful not necessarily for the future but by harnessing perspective in the present, something we could all use a little of right now.
Arrival runs 116 minutes and is rated PG-13. It opens in our South Florida and across the U.S. in most theaters this Friday, Nov. 11. Paramount Pictures invited us to a preview screening for the purpose of this review.