The best science fiction films are about so much more than their subject matter. They probe deeper, asking complex questions about what it means to be human, about what unites us and divides us, about the role (and limitations) of science in advancing humankind. Aliens, like zombies, are not really that interesting apart from their metaphorical trappings.
Smart sci-fi understands this. And Arrival is certainly that. In fact, it’s brilliant; a haunting and somber meditation on grief, love and the primal bonds that unite us. It’s also one of the most original sci-fi films in years.
Amy Adams stars as Dr. Louise Banks, a renowned linguist who is called in by Col. Webber (Forest Whitaker) to translate an alien language. The mysterious visitors have just arrived in a large, black oblong pod over a field in Montana, and 11 others have interspersed across the globe in places like Russia, Australia and China. This arrival predictably causes a global panic; mass looting and plummeting stocks soon follow. Could this be the end of the world?
Dr. Banks is teamed with theoretical physicist Ian Donnelley (Jeremy Renner) to enter the local pod, which opens every 18 hours, and attempt to communicate with the tentacled creatures inside. What follows are weeks of visits with the creatures, as the team attempts to decipher a visual language that can best be described as a series of inky circles. The hope is to eventually understand the answer to the question, “why are they here?”
But language is a subtle thing, and fear does not invite subtlety or compromise. It’s not long before the various nations collaborating on communicating with their pods begin to get anxious. Why take chances with these guys? Are we simply standing by for our own destruction? What are these visitors waiting for, and why won’t they leave?
In the vein of The Martian and other recent films in the genre, Arrival stands out by making the science more important than the fiction. Dr. Banks’ linguistic process is intensely systematic and exhaustive. Much of the film consists of characters poring over notes, drawing and having complex conversations about the nature of communication. It’s all a bit heavy, and in less deft hands could come off as a bit dull. But writer Eric Heisserer and director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario) turn the film into a complex jigsaw puzzle, with individual scenes that slowly piece together into a larger whole. It’s a slow but intoxicating burn.
The film might also fall apart if it didn’t give us cool creatures or environments. But the alien pod is a visual marvel, as are the creatures themselves (referred to as septapods). Separated from the humans by a barrier, they’re often cloaked in a mysterious mist, and the fact that we can’t quite make out their full forms leads to a constant sense of unease and suspense. They eventually become their own characters, with nicknames and highly intelligent ways of processing information. These are not just your average vague CGI space creatures. I also want to praise the sparse but effective sound design and Jóhann Jóhannsson’s chilling score; they give the film a great deal of punch it may have otherwise lacked.
Descriptions of Arrival may come off as cold, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. The film is incredibly emotional and achingly human, and that’s mostly thanks to Adams’ performance, the best of her career. She portrays Dr. Banks as both highly intelligent and a bit of an emotional wild card, someone who has an intimate connection with the septapods to the point where she can almost think like them. She feels deeply, and that can be both a strength and a weakness. As with Emily Blunt in Sicario, Villeneuve has a knack for drawing sensational performances from strong leading ladies, and that strength is used to grand effect here.
It’s tough to write about the film without giving away what makes it special. There is a twist, one that I was surprised I didn’t guess. Perhaps wiser film-goers will find in highly telegraphed, but I’m still thinking about the ramifications of it and what I would do if I was in a similar situation. It’s devastating and, at the same time, quite powerful. It’s up to individuals to decide if the film does enough to solve its grand mystery in a satisfying fashion. There’s a fine line between leaving us guessing in a good way and simply not giving us enough information to be emotionally satisfied, but I think it strikes the perfect balance.
The ultimate question of all great art is, “what makes us human?” Sci-fi is uniquely positioned to meditate on that, because it often includes a non-human entity to contrast. Arrival is no different, but it goes about the question through a lens I haven’t quite seen before.
Arrival’s subtleties and minimalist design may not satisfy everyone, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it ultimately goes down as a genre classic. In the realm of alien invasion flicks, it should certainly be mentioned alongside the likes of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and The Day the Earth Stood Still. It’s a film that will inspire conversation, and it’s one I will be thinking about for some time.