From the outside, director Denis Villenueve’s “Arrival” appears to be a blockbuster film. A global alien invasion and two leads who’ve starred in competing comic book franchise films screams popcorn flick. A closer look reveals a complex tale that’s not about humanity’s demise, but its salvation.
The film opens with a different kind of arrival than you might expect. We see the birth of Dr. Louise Banks’ (Amy Adams) daughter, Hannah. It’s quickly revealed that Hannah (played by Jadyn Malone , Abigail Pniowsky, and Julia Scarlett Dan) has passed. Her life with her mother is shown through a quick series of moments before it’s revealed that she is gone.
We’re then introduced to present-day Louise, a linguistics professor who is at the top of her field. When 12 mysterious spacecraft appear simultaneously around the world, she is approached the U.S. government to try to communicate with the alien creatures. It’s at the ship’s landing site in Montana that she meets Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a physicist. The two are meant to work together using logic and linguistics to uncover the alien’s intent.
What follows is a complex exploration of humanity, communication, and how we perceive reality.
“Arrival” has been touted as the “thinking person’s” sci-fi, and I won’t argue with that assessment, but I do think that “sci-fi” implies a certain amount of science. And while “Arrival” does have its fair share of science, it’s mostly about language and how we communicate.
As humans, we make certain assumptions. We see things in a certain way and with a certain bias. “Arrival,” tests and questions these biases. It weaves its story in what seems to be a traditional way, filled with backstory reveals that add depth to the present day story. When the big reveal is made it’s clear that no secrets were kept, and the whole story has been shared from the beginning. Before you roll your eyes and write “Arrival” off as another artsy film with a “twist,” you should know that this twist is more than a mere gimmick. It’s flawlessly incorporated throughout the film, and hidden in plain sight.
And what a sight it is. Backstory flashbacks can sometimes feel like a crutch in a weak story, thankfully, “Arrival” doesn’t have that problem. As Louise comes closer to decoding the alien language, the flashbacks increase and intensify. They don’t feel like a stop in the action, but a part of the natural progression of the flow of the story. Each snippet takes us another step closer to understanding the larger picture.
All of the performances in this film are strong, but Amy Adams as Louise is the heart and soul of this film. Of all the nominated films, her performance is truly the most surprising snub in the acting categories. Her natural style might seem out-of-place in the heart of an alien spaceship, but it is truly mesmerizing.
While “Arrival” most likely won’t be bringing home the top prize on Oscar night, it’s earned its place amongst the fellow nominees with a relevant and important message wrapped in a package that may seem way out there, but is actually closer to earth than you might think.
…just for fun: