If you like your science-fiction filled with warp speed action in galaxies far, far away, then Arrival might not be your cup of tea. However, if you like intelligent sci-fi set on present-day Earth, this may well be exactly what you are looking for. More akin to Close Encounters of the Third Kind than War of the Worlds, this latest effort from Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario) is a slow paced, philosophical, speculative piece that explores the importance of language, rather than action, as communication, even between those groups whose language systems seem, on the surface at least, to share little common ground. It also touches on issues prevalent in the political and social discourse of today; namely the way in which humans deal with things (people, ideas, ideologies) we don’t understand. In this case, it is the arrival of 11 vessels in various parts of the world that has the relevant military forces scrambling to ascertain the intentions of the aliens. Desperate to try and communicate with the visitors, the US Army calls upon linguistics expert Dr Louise Banks (Amy Adams) to make contact with the two heptapods (so-called because they have seven long tentacles) that inhabit the vessel hovering above a paddock in Montana.
Before Louise is summoned by Colonel Weber (Forrest Whittaker) to assist in the operation, we learn that she is a divorced university professor still grieving the loss of a daughter who has succumbed to cancer at a young age. En route to the site where the spaceship hovers just metres off the ground, Louise meets Dr Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a theoretical physicist who has also been recruited to assist those trying to engage with the visitors, who communicate via complicated circular symbols that resemble ink splotches. With Ian’s assistance, Louise is able to develop a rapport with the aliens and the tensions in the story come not between the humans and the extra-terrestrials, but between Louise and the demands of the military in trying to ascertain exactly what, if anything, these celestial beings have planned and thereby prevent China and other nations from launching attacks on the vessels that have landed in their jurisdictions. In the interests of narrative brevity, Louise is able to decipher the alien language pretty quickly and there never seems to be any expectation that the audience will understand exactly how she has been able to determine what the various shapes and symbols mean.
Adapted from a short story by Ted Chiang titled Story of Your Life, the filmmakers perhaps opting for a different title so as not to pre-empt the twist at the end that has been the focus of so much attention in media discussion. Sure, it does come as a surprise (and please treat those who haven’t read the book yet claim they ‘knew all along’ with the contempt they deserve), but it isn’t a ‘moment of genius’ as some reviewers have declared. Sure, it does add an extra dimension to what has transpired, but the movie would still hold firm as an intelligent, thought-provoking drama without it. There are obvious parallels with the Jodie Foster-starring Contact, not the least of which is a female character front and centre of the narrative. As she has done so often, Adams delivers a performance that makes you believe, and believe in, her character and it is her nuanced execution of a somewhat aloof persona that keeps the story grounded into something authentic, although obviously how you feel about the likelihood of such a situation ever happening might influence how tolerant you are of the contemplative pace and distinct absence of any elaborate action sequences.
A few moments of levity aside, such as when Louise and Ian name the aliens Abbott and Costello (although I couldn’t help but wonder if Kodos and Krang might have been more appropriate), Arrival is an earnest, beautifully constructed and presented musing on the concept of linguistic relativity, a theory that suggests the structure of a language directly affects cognition. The cinematography from Bradford Young (Selma, A Most Violent Year) and the haunting score from Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson (Sicario, The Theory of Everything) combine perfectly to create an atmosphere of tension, mystery and wonder.