Arrival, in a way, is the anti-thesis of your standard, run-of-the-mill, alien invasion movie. The extraterrestrials here don’t enter earth’s atmosphere with a bang — there are no explosions to herald their (pun not intended) arrival— they do so with a whimper and that’s just what makes their presence all the more unsettling. A visitor, right on your front lawn, whose uncertain purpose leaves you in a paranoid purgatario. This mystery is what fuels Arrival and the unraveling of answers, in such a deliberate pace, mixed along tenuous geopolitics, is ultimately what makes the film oh-so compelling.
In a manner very reminiscent to Up’s opening montage, Arrival starts off by setting the drama behind its lead character, linguistics professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams). Soon, she is tapped by the US government to be their translator to the aliens, find a way to establish communication. Working alongside her is theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), and together they spend time deciphering the aliens — focusing on their circular inkblots written language.
Arrival works by putting you in the shoes of Amy Adam’s Louise Banks. This is not a movie where you are an outside spectator, where you learn details beyond what the characters know. You are one with them, alongside them in the confusion, pondering the true purpose of the “heptapods” — so they are called because of their seven-limbed squid-like appearance. As I mentioned in passing earlier, the foundation of the film is the fear of the unknown, like the old adage “we fear what we don’t understand,” and Arrival takes this literally being that they ACTUALLY don’t understand each other (trololol). But everything is not just surface-level, Arrival in a way works as a commentary showing that miscommunication is not only a dilemma between humans and extraterrestrials but moreso that of between nations, between humans themselves. In the vein of recent science fiction such as Black Mirror and Ex Machina, the work of speculation here is not that far-fetched from reality, but one that is very possible given the current geopolitical climate — one that basks on perpetual distrust and high tensions. Arrival embodies this through its mix of a smart plot, deliberate precision pacing, and praise-worthy sound design that evokes a sense of foreboding dread.
Though fear of what we don’t understand and global paranoia are the foundation of Arrival, the thrust of the film is actually seeing Amy Adams, and to some extent Jeremy Renner, frustrate over cracking the code of the alien’s language. From the onset, it’s pretty much established that these creatures are not malevolent. They accommodate, there is no show of force on their end, they even don’t litter (not joking, they ARE eco-friendly). But coming from man’s perspective, that may even be more torturous — being left in the realm of indefinites. And this hovering mystery works well because the aliens don’t serve as metaphors for other humans, they are not the Prawns of District 9, nor are they animalistic primitive creatures like the Xenomorphs, they are intelligent outsiders through and through and I think with this kind of characteristic established onto them early on, viewers are given a solid base for speculation to brew as the movie runs along. Do you get what I’m saying? The narrative push, the mystery, works because it’s not solely based on its intelligent plot but because audience participation/speculation is tapped early into the movie enhancing story progression. That in great part attests to Denis Villeneuve‘s skill as a director. He goes beyond, using the power of cinema to make linguistics (ok, let’s not kid ourselves, it’s freaking linguistics) engaging.
Arrival though isn’t a film that is all grim and dour. Though the script seems to have a phobia for banter, Arrival is very emotional in a way that its undertones are greatly existentialist. It poses questions that are best left unspoiled, thus I dare not discuss them in fear that I may reduce the pleasure of the self-reflection that may arise. Amy Adams carries this human element of the film, playing her character with wide-eyed vulnerability. Her personal struggles are juxtaposed with her frustration with the task at hand. These all tie up nicely in ways you wouldn’t expect by the end of the film.
All in all, Arrival may be one of the smartest science fiction stories put to film not only for the year but for the whole genre in general. It is one that doesn’t rely on thrills and big set pieces, it hooks you on a more cerebral, a more emotional level. What stays after the film is not the spectacle, but the pondering and the realization that all things fit together in the end. If you are craving for a guns blazing invasion movie or even sci-fi that presents a whole different worlds, this may not be the film for you. Arrival is a slow burn that banks on the sheer intellect of its plot, its pacing that suspends you. It may leave you guessing until two-thirds of its runtime but that’s just part of what makes it enjoyable. Feel the frustration, bask in the confusion, and in the end, linger in the questions and the revelations.