Arrival, directed by Denis Villeneuve, is a 2016 science fiction film based on the short story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang. The film stars Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Forest Whitaker. Twelve extraterrestrial spacecraft appear in seemingly random places across the globe. Louise Banks (Adams), a linguist, is asked by US Army Colonel Weber (Whitaker) to join a team at the site of a craft’s landing in the middle of rural Montana to determine what it is these alien beings want. Accompanied by theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Renner), Louise makes contact with two of the beings on their ship and begins the arduous task of deciphering their written language.
First and foremost, I found this movie refreshing. We don’t see a lot of bigger budget science fiction films that don’t have some sort of action-adventure angle to them, doing away with the logistics of a situation like this for the sake of physical conflict (not that there’s anything wrong with this). This movie deals with the one, huge hurdle a situation like this would present that most movies take shortcuts around: how do you communicate with an alien race? While not dealing with an immediate attack or violent invasion, the situation is palpably tense and presented in a realistic, grounded way. People are rioting, how the militaries of the world are handling the situation is a constant worry, and the characters themselves are noticeably shaken by the gravity of it all.
There’s a genre savviness to the film, existing in a realistic world with people implicitly aware of the notions we have about aliens coming to Earth, from Louise pointing out the reluctance to actually use the word “alien,” what we hear of a soldier’s child unable to sleep for fear of the “monsters” coming to get her, or the nagging worry that at any moment they could become hostile. It’s a small feeling I got from the film, that’s never played for laughs, that I nonetheless appreciated.
The story is scaled down nicely, dealing with this global situation on a more personal level. The arrival of the aliens is even downplayed: as Louise arrives for work at a university people are crowding around a TV. When she gets to her class only a small number of students have shown up, who then ask her to put on a news station. We hear a newscaster report on what’s going on, but we still don’t see anything grandiose. We only see the craft in all its glory once she does in person. She is the lens through which we experience this situation, and Amy Adams gives a great performance portraying a character who is brilliant and capable, yet very much out of her depth.
The importance of communication is central the film, not just in the delicacy of trying to understand aliens and be understood in turn, but also communication between all the nations of humanity. While the story is contained within the American camp, numerous superpowers of the world are trying to solve the same problem. While they do share knowledge with one another, this pooling of intelligence is precarious, many wanting to handle the situation differently or keep information for themselves. I especially like the moments where coming to understand language and its translation is broken down, showing all the different ways language can be misunderstood. The question is raised, for example, over whether or not the alien language draws a distinction between “weapon” and “tool,” or if the same word could refer to both.
Arrival is a great science fiction film that explores how we overcome the biggest obstacle of extraterrestrial contact — communication — and confronts the disconnect we as humans have in this area as well. There are some surprise twists and turns that I did not expect that made the film even more of a wonder for me, but I won’t get close to specific to preserve the impact of the story. Whether you’re a fan of science fiction or not, I highly recommend seeing this film.