Twelve alien craft land at apparently random locations on the Earth’s surface. This creates a dangerous situation that could lead to a third world war. A linguist and a physicist are more or less drafted to head up a team trying to find why these apparently alien craft are here. Amy Adams gives a compelling performance as a woman trying to break the most important and also one of the most difficult puzzles in human history. Denis Villeneuve directs a screenplay by Eroc Heisserer based on a story by Ted Chiang. This is probably the best Science Fiction film of 2016.
Rating: low +3 (-4 to +4) or 8/10.
One of my top ten films of last year (actually # 4 on my list) was ‘Sicario’, directed by the-to-me unfamiliar Denis Villeneuve. I made a mental note to pay more attention to his films but I did not need to bother. This year he is back with a much larger calling card. At a time when we have been getting some really good Science Fiction films, Villeneuve has managed to have a stand-out work of Science Fiction cinema. At one time, written Science Fiction frequently would look at the theme of first contact with alien beings and the effort to understand aliens. Frequently, these stories broke down assuming aliens were just like humans except they had funny accents or unpronounceable names. ‘Arrival’ is one of the rare films that has suitably alien aliens and generates a real sense of the incomprehensibility of an alien species.
Dr. Louise Banks (played with subtlety by Amy Adams) is a linguistics professor who had done some work to help the military, work she later regretted. She is at first annoyed when a news story interrupts one of her lectures. It seems that twelve huge spacecraft of unknown origin have each chosen an arbitrary place on the Earth’s surface and is hovering just a few dozen feet in the air.
Army Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) had been impressed with Banks in the past and asks her for a small favour. Could she please be one of the two people making the first contact with extra-terrestrials and, at the same time, head up the effort to communicate with them? How could anybody refuse such a request?
Jeremy Renner plays theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly, the other half of the communications team. Together, they visit the strange inside of an alien craft and will be attempting to understand whatever they find. All the while, the international political atmosphere is supercharged with the uncertainly of just what will the intervention of aliens do to destabilise the political climate.
One has only to look at ‘Independence Day’ to see that this could lead to a slam-bang action story, but instead Villeneuve gives us a serious thought piece, part-puzzle for the characters, part-puzzle for the viewer, part-philosophical introspection, part-imaginative look at the nature of time. While the build is slow, ‘Arrival’ is full of a cerebral tension. The alien is believably alien and the alien language puzzle is made nearly comprehensible. The real enemy is not someone with a gun but the unknown that has to be overcome.
There was a time when Science Fiction films were about flying saucers or giant insects or they might have flying saucers come to Earth, but then we would be treated to rays that vaporise artillery and possibly soldiers with it. There are some battles in ‘Arrival’ but the aliens are not participating and the fighting is kept off-screen. The film’s thrills are all more cerebral and a sign that science fiction films are maturing.
‘Arrival’ is based on a sophisticated story by respected contemporary Science Fiction author Ted Chiang. While the film is not entirely faithful to the Chiang, it is told on a level matching that of the story. It is a story aimed at an adult and intelligent audience featuring an adult and intelligent performance from Adams and Renner. ‘Arrival’ expects a lot from its audience at the same time it is giving more. I rate ‘Arrival’ a low +3 on the -4 to +4 scale or 8/10.
Mark R. Leeper
(c) Mark R. Leeper 2016