Release Date: November 11th, 2016
Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Tzi Ma
Science fiction films, especially first-contact ones like Arrival, like to split the focus on the aliens. Some films review the global response to newly-arrived life forms, or hypothesize a military response to extraterrestrial visitors. It all depends on what the story's intention is. What's more important, explaining the science of how aliens live and breath, or creating a set-piece where for large-scale conflict? There's even a trend of using first-contact as the setting for personal or family-oriented stories, with varying degrees of success. M. Night Shyamalan's Signs, for all of its faults, took this approach, as did the remake of War of the Worlds with Tom Cruise. Arrival puts itself in the same milieu, but adds another layer: it makes the experience intimate. There is no cast of thousands here. There is barely a cast of a dozen. At most we are given a few secondary and one or two tertiary characters, but every speaking role has a purpose and is there to fulfill a significant part of the story. In this way, I liken Arrival to a screen adaptation of a play. The audience is given a very similar experience that they would get if they were seeing a small theatrical production with only a few parts on stage.
Of course, this is not a stage production, and the film makes full use of all of the techniques that movie magic gives us: CGI, montage, flashbacks, and of course the staring-into-space quiet moments that only ever seem to work on screen (because it would be infuriating to watch on stage). But that intimacy and experience is still there.
Arrival tells the story of linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), who is called in by the military after twelve identical space crafts appear at random points all over the world. The world governments each take charge in trying to contact and communicate with the lifeforms inside, who open a hatch once every 18 hours to let in visitors. Louise is brought to the ship located in Montana, along with astrophysicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner). Together, they attempt to translate the and understand the alien life forms in an attempt to ask the all-important questions: where did they come from, and why are they here?
One of the movie's most unique elements is its approach to alien contact. Many science fiction writers will consider several different socio-biological angles in creating an alien species, including physiology, ecology, culture, conflict, etc. Science fiction writers are usually interested in biology, physics, and the anthropology (or xenology, I guess) of extraterrestrials and space travel. But the science du jour here is linguistics, which is a fascinating approach that carries a lot of detail. Language is something that is so central to our society and the core of our being, and the ability to communicate so innate that it is easy to take it for granted. But Louise knows how important communication is, and her explanation of how to properly communicate with other sentient beings is pivotal to her success and the eventual understanding of these alien creatures.
I'm not going to describe the aliens to you, by the way, because you could easily look them up if you want a spoiler, but I would save it for your viewing. Let it be known though that these things are completely and truly alien. They are made up of components that will remind you of other creatures (a few aquatic beings come to mind), but their "vocalizations," communication system, motor abilities and concepts of fundamental science are make them incredibly revolting and yet fascinating.
I'm not going to go into much detail of the plot, as I don't want to spoil any of it. If I had to compare this film to any other science fiction story, I'd have to pick Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five. Arrival is a personal drama with a sci-fi twist, and I'm pretty sure it will surprise a lot of viewers. It also does what all good sci-fi does, by offering an impossible situation, making a choice, giving you the consequences, and leaving the viewer with even more questions. This is a movie that will take some time to wrap your head around. And if the science fiction isn't enough to get you butts into the seats, then let it be known that the film looks amazing (the effects for the ships and aliens are quite impressive), and the performances are solid. I highly recommend checking it out if you can, and I feel that this is just the beginning of what looks to be a fantastic series of winter film releases.