Arrival is the next in the recent spat of thoughtful, adult sci-fi, following in the footsteps of films like Gravity, The Martian, and Interstellar. While it isn’t the crowd pleaser that The Martian was nor does it go as big as Interstellar, Arrival is maybe the most successful of those movies. It is genuinely thoughtful and intelligent, though it can’t quite stick the landing with the same confidence that pulls the viewer through the rest of the movie, a problem it shares with the other movies mentioned.
The movie stars Amy Adams as a linguist who is recruited by the military to help them deal with mysterious alien “shells” that have appeared in the sky in a dozen places around the world. She is teamed with Jeremy Renner, playing a physicist, as they try to translate from a completely alien form of communication. It mostly becomes a slow procedural, as Louise breaks down language to its smallest components to try to have a way of speaking with the aliens, dubbed hectapods. Meanwhile, all around the world people’s trigger fingers get itchy the longer things go without learning the alien’s purpose on earth
Arrival is a movie about communication. That guides the central plot, with Adam’s Louise and Renner’s Ian trying to talk with the alien hectapods that have shown up on earth as it likewise runs through all of the side plots with the world’s reaction to the mysterious aliens in our midst. Communicating can be difficult, with people who speak the same language, let alone a different one or beings that treat language as something different altogether. At first many of the effected countries work together, but as things get more tense and possibly more dangerous, the start to cut themselves off. It is the worst thing that can happen Arrival posits, since open communication is the only way to solve problems. It is telling that the plots central conflict is solved with a phone call. It is also telling that the most heinous act committed is spurred by brain dead political commentators. It is also telling that in the slowly unfolding story of Louise and her child that what drove her and her husband apart was also communication based. Louise chooses to not share information and when it finally came to light it drove them apart.
Enjoyment of this film all comes down to how the viewer takes the twist in the back third. The movie expertly lays the groundwork for its twist, so it is at the same time surprising and completely logical. Still, it is a massive change to how things proceed. Louise’s expertise with language eventually leads to her deciphering their circular method of writing, which ties back into the movie’s other theme of time. It opens with narration that humanity is too focused on sequence and by the end it escapes that trap.
Usually a movie with this sort of cerebral is also somewhat cold, but Arrival is a thoughtful, intelligent film that is also really emotional. Unlike last year’s Interstellar, which tried for the same thing, Arrival makes each part feel like it was earned. It helps that it is not swinging quite so hard as that movie, being both smaller and more personal.
Arrival isn’t perfect; it can be slow and plodding and the final twist is a tough pill to swallow, but it is smarter and more entertaining than just about anything else I’ve seen this year. Amy Adams is as outstanding as usual, and the rest of the cast is solid.