Arrival is more Eternal Sunshine than District 9. It’s an art film with a mid-sized movie budget and a large ad campaign. It’s a simple, profoundly beautiful poem of a movie about nonlinear time, the power of language and the importance of not giving into our fears of the unknown.
It’s also a spectacular movie.
Amy Adams stars as Dr. Louise Banks, a lonely linguist who lost her daughter to a rare terminal disease. Her solitary life is upended, however, when strange alien spacecrafts touch down in 12 places across the globe. Banks is recruited by the U.S. government (here represented by Colonel Weber (Forrest Whitakker)) along with mathematician Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to help figure out the intentions of the aliens in the spacecraft hovering above the ground in Omaha.
Elsewhere around the globe, similar teams are put together to attempt to communicate with the spacecrafts, some (like China and Russia) more hostile and suspicious of the aliens than we initially are in the United States (the fact that we might be written more similarly to Russia and China in future movies is the inescapably depressing undercurrent of Arrival).
Communicating with the aliens — who speak in clicks and indecipherable whale-like sounds — is a tough nut to crack for Banks until she reduces language to a visual symbols (or the English alphabet), which she can correlate with the aliens’ own symbols, produced with squid-like ink that they can manipulate with their minds.
Beyond the awe of being in the presence of aliens, the logistics of their spacecraft, and concerns that they carry with them dangerous bacteria, Banks and Donnelly make slow but incremental progress in communicating with the aliens. The rub, however, comes when there’s a misunderstanding over the word “weapon,” which raises suspicions all across the globe. It’s up to Banks to crack the code before war breaks out.
Arrival, however, does not take a familiar path. Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, who has built a career out of Oscar-worthy genre films (Prisoners, Enemy, Sicario) defies sci-fi conventions and pulls out a surprisingly poignant and touching twist that that’s more soft and warm than gut-wrenching. Amy Adams is a godsend here, the cozy but vulnerable blanket at the center of the film, while Renner is pleasantly subdued, his Rennerness dialed down to a low hum.
Ultimately, Arrival is about how we discover ourselves in trying to understand others, and about choosing humanity over fear. It’s a hopeful, lovely, and uplifting film, a welcome departure from the real world but also a reminder that, regardless of what the worst of us represents, collectively we are a good people. It’s up to us to ensure that our better angels prevail.