One day, they arrive. Twelve giant pods hover over major countries throughout the world. No one knows where they came from. No one saw them coming. No one knows what they want.
Every few hours, a door opens, allowing humans to enter the spaceships. Then what? The humans are stumped on how to communicate. Figuring it out falls to Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice), a trusted linguist who has helped the military translate enemy radio chatter. Her mission: learn the aliens’ language — and develop a system of communication, ASAP.
Banks has a deadline: China and Russia promise military action if the aliens don’t state their purpose or move on. Intergalactic war will end diplomacy.
Complicated and painstakingly filmed, Arrival continues the sci-fi tradition of examining the foibles of human nature in a broader context. These aliens are a fully developed metaphor for humanity’s fears of the unknown and how fear shapes geopolitics. If that sounds a little too heavy for a movie featuring creatures that look like a blend of squids and spiders, I promise that director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario) rewards you for expending brainpower at the cinema.
Villeneuve and cinematographer Bradford Young (Selma) create an enthralling film. From the shape of the ships to the vast and isolating Montana backdrop, every shot is beautifully composed and styled. This world feels both familiar yet just alien enough to be unsettling. Expansive open areas contrast with cramped claustrophobic shots to ramp up tension.
The script by Eric Heisserer (Lights Out), based on a story by Ted Chiang, picks at the ideas of destiny, time, communication and our drive to create connections. Lots of deep concepts are suggested. Still, the two-hour running time constrains their development, and Heisserer must rely on contrivance to wrap up the story. Like the classic Twilight Zone episodes written by Ray Bradbury, Arrival is both liberated and constrained by its medium.
At the emotional core, Amy Adams is masterful. Her Louise is frightened but determined to make a connection. As she learns the alien language, she becomes more forceful. Banks discovers herself as she understands the aliens.
An emotionally provocative sci-fi film that stimulates and rewards, Arrival is worth the price you’ll pay to see it on the big screen, where Young’s cinematography will have the most impact.
Great Sci-Fi • PG-13 • 116 mins.