Every once in awhile a director shows up that starts to buck current trends, and Denis Villeneuve is one of them. He is in no way a new director. A number of his original Canadian films are highly regarded, and he already established a reputation in the U.S. with Sicario prior to Arrival. Originally when I heard about Arrival, though, I automatically thought that it might be a remake of the low-budget David Twohy movie from the 1990s starring Charlie Sheen. I really liked that film, but, again, it was of a time and place (and meant to ride the coattails of Independence Day) and a big-budget remake was not something to look forward to.
Happily, this has nothing to do with it, nor does it follow the alien invasion path. Of course, next thing was the fear that it would be a bit like Contact, specifically the disappointing reveal of the aliens at the end. Instead, we get a rather intellectual film about linguistics and how language can both cause misunderstandings and bridge the vast gulf between different cultures.
We are introduced Louise Banks (Amy Adams) through a series of vignettes of her life with her daughter (Camela Noss Guizzo, Jadyn Malone, Abigail Pniowsky, Julia Scarlett-Dan) up to her death at 12 years old of a rare disease. Louise lives alone in a secluded cabin, immersing herself in her work at teaching her linguistics classes. One day she begins a lesson to an almost empty room, unaware of what may be happening on the news. Her students call her attention to it, asking for the TV to be turned on, which reveals that 12 alien spaceships have just arrived in seemingly random locations around the world.
The governments of the world immediately try to converse with the aliens to no avail, despite the visitors' apparent willingness to converse. Since Louise has previously worked with the government and has top secret clearance, she is contacted by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), who is in charge of the site in Montana where one of the alien ships has made its home. Initially reluctant to let her visit the site despite her insistence that she needs actual face-to-face contact to learn their language, he soon relents and pairs her with physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) so that both of them may work out a means of communication so they can find out why they came to Earth.
Initially stumped by the squid-like creatures' (named Heptapods, as they have seven limbs that double as both arms as legs) vocalizations, Banks decides to try a written language first, to which the Heptapods respond. While Donnelly also leads his team in trying to discover what scientific knowledge they may hold, he also begins to assist Louise in interpreting the aliens' writing as well as teaching them to understand English.
Meanwhile, tensions build across the world, as other countries, particularly China, begin to break down the communication barriers as well. Both Russia and China, afraid that the visitors may have unfriendly intentions, start mobilizing offensive forces and demanding that the Heptapods leave, particularly after General Shang (Tzi Ma), the leader of China's People's Revolutionary Army, learns that the aliens are offering the human race a weapon. The question arises, however, if they actually mean weapon, or tool, but the word weapon ignites the usual rivalries between nations, with many leaders thinking that the Heptapods' intentions are to have the nations of the world fight it out until there is only one faction left to deal with.
There is also a fear of global retaliation, particularly after a number of rogue U.S. soldiers attempt to blow up the ship in Montana. Through their work in untangling the alien language, Banks soon finds out that the truth is quite different than anyone expects, and must act before irreversible mistakes are made.
Though I am far from an expert (I speak a few basic words of Russian and Spanish), linguistics is one of the many sciences that interest me. The way that culture, as well as environment, shapes how we communicate, is worth the study even if your circumstances make it difficult to learn a language due to the lack of people to converse with (which was always my case). The Heptapods themselves are completely alien, both physically and mentally, from human beings, and their language reflects it. And, as one begins to think more in the language of another culture, one begins to understand it more, so does the same situation occur for Louise Banks in the film. That's really as far as I am going to take it for those who haven't seen it (or had it spoiled already).
There is much in Arrival meant to make it as accurate as possible, from real physics interjected as well as not putting either Amy Adams or Jeremy Renner in any big action pieces. Instead, they are allowed to play scientists as scientists. Also, there is none of the moralizing and such that we typically get in science fiction movies. Forest Whitaker plays a bit of a stock character at times, but even as a military man he is willing to listen and try to understand and work with the scientists on the project.
Visually, the film is magnificent. The mist coming down off the hills where the spaceship has landed in the U.S., the stark corridors inside the ship, the environment in which the aliens exist - this is what CGI can do if done properly. The design of the aliens is also not that far off the mark, as cephalopods are one of the many animals on our own planet that we can conceive truly evolving to the same level as us. Since Denis Villeneuve is also heading up Blade Runner 2049, it is one more thing to look forward to in that long-awaited sequel.
I did find some fault with the way the film handled the reaction to first contact. Immediately the U.S. breaks out into riots and looting, while Russia and China try to shoot at everything. I may be a bit optimistic, but I do feel that an event of this scale, as long as the visitors were not hostile or hungry for the other, other white meat, that it may be one of the few things that gets everyone to calm down for a bit.
The only other thing I need to say is that the whole Contact thing is not something you have to worry about. It may seem like there is an overly emotional story going on about Banks's deceased daughter, but it is much more than it seems and not some lame excuse to duck showing real aliens or tie everything up with a happy ending. I was afraid of this through a good part of the movie, and I think it affected my judgment while watching more than it should.
First contact stories have been told over and over, but it is rare that a science fiction film these days gets beyond spectacle and down to what those of us who like "hard science fiction" enjoy. Arrival, like the recent television series The Expanse, is a gift for those of us who know that the genre goes way beyond blasters and laser swords.
Time: 116 minutes
Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Tzi Ma
Director: Denis Villeneuve