Arrival (Theatrical Science Fiction Movie, 2016).


This film, based on a story by Ted Chang, one of the very best of the younger generation of SF authors, earned a fistful of Academy Award nominations. It won in one technical category (sound) and could’ve easily earned more. If it wasn’t that year’s actual Best Picture, it was close. So, yes, straight away and without hesitation, I think Arrival is an excellent movie and one of the finest SF films of recent memory.

It’s an intelligent and moving First Contact story, directed very capably by Denis Villeneuve from a screenplay by Eric Heisserer. A dozen giant spacecraft land in various places around Earth and basically just hover slightly off the ground as humanity’s several governments try to contact and understand them.

Amy Adams plays the central character, a renowned linguist named Louise Banks. She is more or less drafted by the US government to head the military directed team camped alongside a ship in Montana. Forest Whitaker, as Army Colonel Weber, is the onsite face of authority. Jeremy Renner is a physicist, the only other pure-science type on the scene, although the military and CIA officers have suitable tech skills.

I came to the DVD with only a basic understanding of the plot, so the dreams and/or visions Adams experiences throughout were doubly mysterious, at least in the beginning. I assumed that these scenes marking the birth, growth and finally tragic cancer death of her daughter were back-story troubling her character so deeply that she refused to discuss any of it with anyone else. As the show unfolded, the actual status of these visions was gradually revealed to me–which added considerably to the film’s emotional power.

The alien Heptapods (so named for their seven legs) might be described as resembling giant jellyfish. They breathe an atmosphere different enough from ours that they stand behind a transparent barrier in a swirl of gases that add to their mystery. Adams (and other researchers around the world) determine that they don’t communicate by sound, rather they squirt fluid from one of their many legs that form briefly visible writing. It’s almost as if a squid used its ink-squirting abilities for communication, rather than defense.

The agonizingly slow process of two wildly different species learning to understand and communicate with each other is well demonstrated here. It’s also worth noting that, while Adams is clearly brilliant, it isn’t JUST this one bright American coming up with answers and seeking comprehension. There are smart people all over the world–itself a welcome and all-too-rare feature in this type of movie.

But human impatience, not to mention suspicion of others (whether they be otherworldly aliens or merely people from other nations) set the stage for violent responses to these strange visitors. Rogue elements of the US military launch a not-very-effective yet deadly attack. This vastly complicates an already tense situation while an only fragmentary understanding of the Heptapods’ language combines with a misunderstanding of their intent has several affected nations, led by a stern Chinese General, on the verge of all-out war against the alien visitors.

The true nature of Adams’ visions and how they relate to the Heptapod language (and their unique understanding of how time flows) play a vital role in averting more needless bloodshed. In the process, the film is brought to a stunningly intelligent and thoughtful climax.

The alien tech presented here, including some sort of artificial gravity, is handled well without dominating and overwhelming the personal drama. There’s even a tiny bit of sly, understated humor at one point–as suspicious humans employ a literal version of the low-tech and ancient canary-in-the-coal-mines trope to be sure the oxygen-based breathing mix the aliens thoughtfully provide aboard their ship is, in fact, safe.

It’s also good that the top military figures, as evidenced by Whitaker as a gruff, demanding but not stupid soldier, and even by the wrong-headed yet still emotionally reachable Chinese General Shang (Tzi Ma, in a tiny yet pivotal supporting role), are not all portrayed as fools or bloodthirsty madmen.

Arrival proves to be a smart, moving, complex and often bittersweet film. I recommend it highly.

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