Twelve 1,500 foot alien hockey pucks appear in seemingly random locations across the globe. The collective population descends into panic – evacuating businesses and schools while scrambling a swift military response. It’s an eerily resonant response that doesn’t feel a bit outside of what we might expect. Earth’s first visitors have arrived. But what do they want? Are they docile beings or something more sinister? Why did they land where they did? How will humanity respond?
On a macro level Arrival attempts to answer all of these questions. Director Denis Vileneuve isn’t interested in full scale CGI-battles – opting instead for a steady, nearly-actionless study of a humane response. It feels familiar but an entirely fresh perspective given the dearth of ridiculous, 2+ hour punchathons audiences are subjected to on a regular basis. Vileneuve asks these and some intensely existential questions as well – and even dares to answer them. The final product is some of the best modern sci-fi and the finest film I’ve seen this year.
Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is a language professor still reeling from the loss of her daughter to cancer. Her days are slight – going from her lake house to the classroom with little in the way of human interaction. One innocuous morning her class is nearly empty and one student asks her to turn on the news. Before long the entire school is evacuating – they have arrived.
Dr. Banks has worked as a translator for the military before and is quickly approached again. Colonel Weber (Forrest Whitaker – sporting a wonderfully weird accent) has made contact with the U.S.’s only domestic vessel – floating peacefully above a field in Montana. He has a recording of their first “conversation” with the aliens – a series of whale-like whistles and low-grumbling baritone, trombone hoots. Of course Dr. Banks cannot translate this and is whisked away to the makeshift military compound to attempt to answer the world’s biggest question, “what is your purpose here?”
In Montana Dr. Banks is accompanied twice-daily inside the spacecraft with scientist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner – with glasses so you know he’s smart.) In one awe-inspiring sequence the duo enters the pod for the first time only to find normal physics do not apply, floating in three-dimensional space with little resistance. Donnelly’s eyes well up knowing his entire worldly perspective has been shattered.
What transpires when Dr. Banks and Donnelly arrive in Montana would be a shame to spoil and while not quite as compelling as its setup, is deeply satisfying. Vileneuve’s delicate approach to making contact with a new species and the slow, sometimes painful process of communication is remarkable. The aliens are ethereal beings (with the look of a tarantula combined with a human hand) who write in octopus-like ink circles are compelling counterparts to the curious humans. They want to communicate too, expressing that slowly but patiently.
Arrival falters, only slightly, with it’s human adversaries. Michael Stuhlbarg as CIA Agent Halpern is comically short-sighted, constantly putting pressure on his scientific partners for swift answers. The pressure is seemingly justified by the Chinese and Russian want to bomb their respective pods but the sense of urgency feels forced, like the screenwriters needed a device to speed up the process of ending this thing.
Still, Vileneuve’s steady hand combined with the stunning camerawork of Bradford Young never wavers. Using an eerily beautiful score by Jóhan Jóhannson to accentuate the unknowing dread, Vileneuve crafts a mood that I still can’t shake. It’s one of overwhelming sadness and reflection anchored by a stunning performance by Amy Adams. Her ability to show compassion toward her new friends while dealing with her demons is so unique and confident I’d be shocked if she wasn’t celebrated come awards season.
Arrival deserves these accolades. In the wake of an unsettling, hellscape of a campaign season it provides a hopeful view of international relations. It also displays a subtle look at humanity through the eyes of woman who has endured struggles we wouldn’t wish on our worst enemy. It’s beautiful, mind-bending and heart breaking – sci-fi at its very best.