Denis Villeneuve‘s Arrival, a contemplative and mesmerizing project, succeeds especially when it comes to the definition of “alien”. It’s been a while since a movie showed me visitors from beyond the stars that looked and felt so genuinely otherworldly. Our only hope of reaching out to them and understanding why they’re here is to decipher the symbols in their language. And for this, a linguist played by Amy Adams is the hero we need. As a linguistics and communications student, this made me feel kind of empowered.
Of course, our understanding of the beings in Arrival relies on intelligence from all across the globe, but we still see most of this big event through the eyes of an American language teacher named Louise (Adams). And of course (again), humanity being the way that it is, not every nation is in agreement as to whether the answer is communication or a mindless attack.
After the news of extraterrestrial visitors shakes the entire world, Louise is approached by a U.S. Army Colonel played by Forest Whitaker (who occasionally comes off as too much of an arsehole stereotype), who brings her to one of the landing sites. With them is also a scientist played by Jeremy Renner, and the plan is to enter the gargantuan mint-shaped ship as it hovers above a remote field in the countryside and make contact with the creatures somehow. One of the best shots in the film is when the helicopter carrying the protagonists approaches the field in question, as the spacecraft towers over it and clouds climb briskly over the surrounding mountains.
Standing in a white, zero-gravity void behind a wall of glass that seperates it from the ship’s entry hatch, the aliens are given the designation “Heptapods” (and the nicknames Abbot and Castello by Renner’s character) due to their appearance, and excrete a smoke-like substance that they manipulate into symbols. Louise and other language geeks from all over the Earth start interpreting these as words, which is only the beginning of their discoveries.
This is a movie that might make you think of everything from 2001 to Interstellar, but it does so many clever and unique things with its storytelling and execution (to the point where certain inconsistencies and storytelling clichés suddenly make more sense towards the end) that its similarities to other works of sci-fi aren’t a bother. I don’t wanna talk too much about it since this is a prime example of a movie that’s best watched un-spoiled, and even that might be saying too much.
I will admit this much: sometimes it feels like humanity learns to understand the language of the Heptapods a little too quickly for the convenience of the plot. Apart from this nitpick, I thoroughly adored Arrival. That, and a few VFX shots that bothered me but may actually have been illusions created by lighting. More precisely, there are some shots where the characters wear their hazmat suits in a dimly lit section of the Heptapod ship, and their illuminated faces make it look like the faces of the actors have been superimposed onto stunt bodies. There is also a significant scene towards the climax that looks like something out of Final Fantasy, though not necessarily in a bad way.
Due to the low budget, however (and possibly also due to smart directing), the computer-generated effects in Arrival are only used when necessary, making our first view of the Heptapod ship all the more awe-inspiring and intimidating. The effects are also, as Adam Johnston of Your Movie Sucks fame put it, “icing on the cake” as opposed to being utilized for the sake of fancy action spectacle (consider the in-your-face special effects of, say, Doctor Strange compared to those in this film). More than anything else, the film is dialogue-driven and thoughtful, with VFX used only to emphasize the size and outlandishness of our non-human visitors.
Then there’s the acting, which is equally munificient. Much like in Nocturnal Animals, Amy Adams in particular plays her role with such power and subtle touches that she stops being an actor and becomes the character. When she nears the Heptapod ship for the first time, we can tell that her heart is pounding rapidly and ours starts beating along with hers. Basically: she’s recovering big-time after the Batman v Superman fiasco. Good on her.