At this point, there are too many movies about aliens landing here on Earth to count. Everyone has their favorites, I love the original Independence Day, because I don’t think anything else has done it better. In that movie, and several others, humanity is shown to be somewhat united against the common enemy. With Arrival, we finally have a movie that shows us as divided as we are now, and what that division could mean should we be invaded.
First, let me start by saying this should not be confused with The Arrival, a much creepier alien invasion movie from 1996 starring Charlie Sheen.
Arrival starts by introducing us to Dr. Louise Banks. She’s giving a voice-over, stating that she thought she knew the beginning of ‘your’ story and the end, but now she isn’t sure. Over some well-assembled flashbacks, we learn that the ‘your’ is a daughter she had who contracted a rare disease as a teen, and died fairly young. Dr. Banks is a linguist who is teaching at a college and living in a beautiful home on a lake, a bit mopey because of (we assume) her daughter’s death. Once day she arrives to teach and finds the majority of her class missing – the rest soon are all distracted by their mobile devices going off. She turns on the TV to find that ships have arrived to earth from elsewhere, and have not really landed, but are hovering at various points all over the globe. They are shaped like long oval eggs, but with a flat side.
Dr. Banks gets a visit from Colonel Weber, who wants her to attempt to translate a recording of the aliens. Apparently she had done some translation for the government before so he knew where and how to find her. She states she would need to be there, face to face, and at first he’s reluctant, but after checking in with what we assume is her main competitor – he comes to pick her up at home in a helicopter.
En route, she meets Ian Donnelly, a theoretical mathematician. Together, they arrive at the military’s base camp around the object in Montana. They swiftly learn scientists at all twelve sites have been sharing what they have learned in the hopes that they can all begin to communicate. The ships have a ‘door’ at the bottom that opens every 18 hours allowing folks to walk in and interact with the aliens, which up to this point, has been going nowhere.
Dr. Banks and Donnelly get their first look at the aliens, which look a bit like the Scrabs from Abe’s Oddysee, if you remember that game, but with more legs, and less of a head. They give the aliens the name heptapods (they have seven legs/arms). They stay behind a screen, apparently the aliens breathe different air. Banks starts using a white board to tell the aliens words and write them down, which apparently no one had thought to do before, because the aliens respond by ‘writing’ a word on the screen between them. Their language is circular based – and over the course of time (we’re not really told how much), Banks and Donnelly are able to piece together their language and work out a way to communicate.
The government, of course, wants to know why they are here, and scientists hesitate to ask that, not wanting to scare or provoke the heptapods. Unfortunately, not everyone is on the same page, as the government in China begins to get more aggressive about their visitors, suddenly there is a ticking clock on the project. Communications between the landing sites shut down, so no one knows what the other groups are doing. At that point, Banks has to make a decision about what they want, how they want it, and what to do – all hopefully fast enough to avoid intergalactic and global conflict.
The movie is quiet and slow, any yet somehow manages to not feel like it drags because it does a good job of intercutting Banks’s flashbacks with her current progress. And yes, there is a bit of a twist at the end, that some have found a little confusing, but I found to be an elegant conclusion to the story. The alien design was absolutely lovely, and they seemed to be a sort of space squid, since they communicate with ink. I’m not familiar with French-Canadian Director Denis Villeneuve’s style, having not seen Sicario or Prisoners, but this one was beautifully done. I did not care for the score, since at some points I couldn’t tell if the aliens were speaking, or if that was the score of the soundtrack. They sounded a bit like whales when they were making noise, and the soundtrack had a lot of that type of sound on it as well. The story was interesting, and actually fairly simple when you get down to it, but it was well-crafted and well performed.
- Amy Adams is definitely the star of this movie, and she does a good job of carrying the majority of the plot. Her giant eyes work well in looking up at the heptapods with awe. The underlying sadness of the character was very interesting, especially once you get to the end.
- Jeremy Renner’s character is a bit of an afterthought, Ian Donnelly gets virtually no character development, aside from being great at math. He’s just fine, but honestly, doesn’t have enough to do to leave a lasting impression. My favorite thing for him was when Banks had him walk back and forth in front of the screen as she wrote “Ian walks” for the heptapods, as one of them walked with him. Charming.
- Michael Stuhlbarg plays Agent Halpern; the CIA scientist who was running the communication project prior to Banks showing up. He’s predictably shady.
- Forest Whitaker plays Colonel Weber, and he is basically the stereotypical military-dude in these types of movies. “I want to know why they’re here and I want to know now!” To be fair, he’s pretty patient with the scientists and helps them get what they need to communicate with the heptapods.
- Tzi Ma plays the Chinese General Shang. He’s key because he both provides the ticking clock on Banks figuring out why the aliens are here, and, ironically, he’s responsible for helping stop that clock.
Honestly, that’s about it, there are not a lot of people in this movie. It’s a movie that manages to simultaneously feel huge and intimately small. Overall, it was a bit of a surprise for me. I was expecting it to be pretentious and boring, and while it was definitely a bit pretentious here and there, I was at no point bored – even though it does move slowly. I loved the reveal at the end, even if I didn’t understand it completely, I thought it was a fantastic end to this story.
7 out of 10 – Bonus points for the hopefulness at the very end, but lost points for humanity being divided and stubborn up to that point.
Bonus - In case you forgot Abe's Oddysee: