Can we possibly communicate with aliens if they ever come to our planet? Can we and they really understand and emphasize with each other even if that were possible? “Arrival” begins with these familiar but undeniably fascinating questions which have inspired numerous science fiction fictions and movies for many years, and this smart, intelligent film distinguishes itself with compelling ideas and thoughtful storytelling. While impressed a lot by its evocative mood and striking visual moments, I observed its ideas with interest and curiosity, and then I appreciated its storytelling more around its finale as I came to get the full sense of what is about as well as how it is about.
After the prologue sequence which gives us a glimpse into the personal life of its linguist heroine Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), the movie succinctly establishes the premise during its early scenes. Huge, oblong-shaped extraterrestrial spacecrafts suddenly appear on the twelve seemingly random locations around the world, and the human society is naturally shaken and overwhelmed by this inarguable proof of the existence of extraterrestrials. As these spacecrafts silently hover just above the ground without giving any noticeable signal, the governments around the world go into emergency mode, and they may take action against the aliens if there comes any sign to suggest that the aliens do not come in peace.
Unlike many other people, Banks does not look that perturbed. Although she leaves her workplace early along with others as the state of emergency is announced, she comes back to her office on the next day as if nothing serious happened, and you may wonder whether her rather detached attitude is associated with what we observed from her at an earlier point in the movie.
While she is in her office, she is visited by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), who is in the charge of the US military operation on one of the spacecrafts which is located on a remote spot in Montana. He needs Banks’ linguistic expertise for deciphering the aliens’ language, and she is soon brought to the operation base near the spacecraft while accompanied with Weber and theoretical physicist Dr. Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner).
Not long after she arrives in the operation base, she goes inside the spacecraft along with others including Donnelly, and the sequence showing her first contact with the aliens, which are called ‘Heptapods’ because of their seven-legged shape, is filled with tense awe and ambiguity as she approaches to the unknown step by step. In a big chamber space inside the spacecraft, she and others behold two Heptapods appearing inside the foggy space behind a transparent wall, and she finds herself quite agitated by this experience even after she safely returns to the base along with others.
While her first encounter with Heptapods has no particular success, Banks thinks of a possible way to communicate with Heptapods on elementary level, and that leads to one of the most interesting moments in the movie. As teaching those two Heptapods, nicknamed Abbot and Costello by Donnelly, basic English vocabulary, Banks comes to get the clues to Heptapods’ language which are quite alien to human beings in many aspects, and we soon see how that Rosetta Stone moment is followed by more progress, as conveniently explained to us by Donnelly during one obligatory montage sequence.
However, the situation remains volatile and uncertain even while many governments around the world work together for figuring out what is the real purpose of Heptapods’ visit to the Earth. The third act of the movie becomes more suspenseful as human fear and distrust seriously threaten what may be the real communication between humankind and Heptapods, and that reminds us of how we tend to succumb to our worst sides when confronting the unknown.
But we can also do better as following our best sides, which are exemplified well as Banks rises to the occasion through her strenuous efforts for communicating with Heptapods. Amy Adams is simply superb as the human anchor of the movie, and you will admire her excellent performance especially after understanding her character’s emotional state more later in the story. Although their roles feel more like plot tools at times, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, and Michael Stuhlbarg did a solid supporting job around Adams, and Renner and Adams play well with each other as ably conveying to us the growing rapport between their characters.
The movie is based on Ted Chiang’s short story “Story of Your Life”. I must confess that I have not read that acclaimed short story yet, but I can tell you at least that the adapted screenplay by Eric Heisserer keeps intriguing us throughout its plot, and the director Denis Villeneuve, who was recently Oscar-nominated for his film (the movie received total 8 Oscar nominations including the one for Best Picture), did a superlative job of presenting the story with his own style which has been consistently shown from his previous works including “Incendies” (2010) and “Sicario” (2015). As special effects are judiciously utilized throughout the film, the cinematography by Bradford Young serves us a number of stunning visual moments to admire, and the ambient score by Jóhann Jóhannsson further accentuates the ambiguous and nervous atmosphere surrounding the characters in the film.
During recent years, there have been some exceptional science fiction films such as “Gravity” (2013), “Interstellar” (2014), and “The Martian” (2015), and “Arrival” deserves to be mentioned along with them, considering how it powerfully resonates with ideas and images while making us reflect on our existence in the universe. In short, this is one of the most interesting films which came out during 2016, and you should not miss its thought-provoking cinematic experience.