Director: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Genre(s): Science Fiction/Drama
Rated: PG-13 (For brief strong language)
It is baffling to think that we as a species have been making first contact movies almost as long as we’ve been making movies, and yet we rarely take the time to ask real questions when we make them. We don’t ask why the aliens come to Earth. We rarely ask what we can learn from them. Most of the time, we just start shooting them or they start shooting at us. With “Arrival” we find ourselves viewing a movie where we are observers to intergalactic diplomacy. Yes, I know ‘Star Trek’ has been doing this for years, but even those movies have turned more into summer blockbusters than the dialog driven series it used to be. Here though we see humans interacting with aliens in a language neither can understand, both a little on the edge, but everyone willing to see where things will head before they start firing the weapons they have on standby.
Because the whole point in this is to learn and understand, the key players in this are not military men, but two normal citizens. The key negotiator is Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Banks), a linguist who has nightmares of another life she has lived. Her goal is to talk to the aliens, learn their language, and help them understand how humans speak. The other key negotiator is Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) a military theoretical physicist. Standing behind them is Colonel GT Weber (Forest Whitaker) the sole military man who hovers above the two intellectuals, barking out the orders that need to be spoken and prepared to fire should said negotiations go south. The focus is truly on Louise though as she is the one who needs to understand the language of the strange visitors. The visitors only make little sounds but they squirt out some form of black smoke rings that give clues to their alien language.
There are large stretches of time where these images are analyzed and discussed, but these conversations are never boring. This is because the atmosphere and the dialog work in perfect sync with each other to keep the audience fully emerged in the mystery in front of them while keeping the tension high. Make no mistake: this is a mystery being sold as a science fiction film. Interestingly the answer does come out long before the film ends, and, as a result, manages to give the film yet another layer of depth. I don’t want to discuss this twist because I wouldn’t dream of robbing audiences the joy of discovering it for themselves. I do want to say that when it does come our concept of what the movie is and what we feel about it changes drastically, and it comes early enough so we can appreciate the change during the film rather than afterwards in the parking lot (though I suspect there will be lots of discussion there as well).
The movie has been directed with great precision by Denis Villeneuve, whose previous films include “Prisoners” and “Sicario.” Though he didn’t make a name for himself as fast as M. Night Shyamalan or Christopher Nolan, he has established himself as a visionary director who makes movies that keeps their cards close to its chest until the right moment when the time comes to question everything that has come before. This is a risky kind of film to make because it can easily leave the audience feeling manipulated and taken advantage of if it is done improperly. He makes movies about two things though: discovery and self-reflection. In all his movies the twist comes not to shake up the audience but the characters in the movie. The twists revel more about their world and the people who inhabit it. By extension, the audience is then forced to reexamine what we feel about everything we have seen.
In fact, the more I think about “Arrival” myself the more I realize how little this has to do with aliens and UFO’s in the first place. This is about life, choices, and knowing about things you might be better off not knowing. I must tread lightly when expanding on that while I close this review. In fact, since I risk too much in talking about that aspect, I will discuss the science fiction moments, which is what the movie is selling itself on. I do believe that fans of this genre will certainly love what “Arrival” has brought to the genre. There isn’t as much action as some might be expecting (or wanting), but some of the greatest science fiction films ever made were about ideas and the unknown. They explored possibilities. They were used to examining the human condition by (ironically) making the humans watching the movie look at themselves from the outside in. In these regards “Arrival” has the potential to take a place next to the great science fiction films like “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” and “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn.” It also, I’ll end by saying, may take its place as one of the great dramas of the year.
Parents, with the exception of one use of the f-word this could have been a G rated film. Seriously. Recommended for ages 12 and up.