Arts movie review

Arrival offers an original and mesmerizing take on extraterrestrial interactions

A thought provoking drama about a linguist and two aliens

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Amy Adams as Louise Banks in Arrival by Paramount Pictures.
Jan Thijs Courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Mark O’Brien
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Virtually every film requires its viewer to suspend, to some degree, their disbelief. Film is inherently make-believe, but insofar as a viewer is willing to acknowledge this beforehand and accept as reality the rules of the world that the filmmaker has created, the dissonance does not have to interfere with the storytelling experience. Arrival, director Denis Villeneuve’s science fiction film, adapted from the short story “Story of Your Life,” rides this fine line with reckless abandon. Operational details are frequently glossed over with a hand-waving flourish, and other actions or choices seem far too convenient or too easy. However, in the context of the film’s ingenuity, intrigue, and original premise, these faults can and should be overlooked. Contingent on this successful suspension of disbelief, Arrival delivers a thought-provoking and understated drama with an astonishing denouement.

Arrival’s brand of extraterrestrial contact comes in the form of 12 oblong, smooth, black spaceships that have quite suddenly landed in 12 different countries across the world. Expert linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), along with theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), are called in by the United States government to help communicate with the aliens. Despite the science fiction backdrop of alien contact, the film is primarily about language, communication, and understanding. In order to understand why the aliens have come to Earth — no one yet knows if they are peaceful or violent — Dr. Banks begins an interspecies linguistic exchange.

However, not only is the U.S. government seeking to communicate with the aliens, but they are also tasked with working together with the other 11 countries to solve the same problem. Predictably, this poses a few problems as the world powers butt heads and struggle to gain control over a situation that seems so far out of control.

The visuals are also breathtaking, from the rolling green hills to the cascading flow of early morning fog across the grassy plains to the fascinating design of the alien spaceship and alien creatures. The contrast between the towering black ship and the smallness of the humans beneath truly drives home the enormity of the situation. Unlike some science fiction alien-encounter films, Arrival does not shy away from imagining exactly what these extraterrestrials might look like. It is a mesmerizing experience for the viewer to slowly understand and visualize the entirety of these creatures’ alien appearance along with Dr. Banks and the rest of the scientists.

Ian, the theoretical physicist, does seem at times to be a superfluous character. It is apparent from the beginning that he is meant to be a form of comedic relief in an otherwise mostly serious movie, as well as the token romantic interest. Certainly their relationship is not the focus of the film, but it is interesting to note that Ian does little theoretical physics at all throughout the film and instead functions more as an assistant to Dr. Banks and the U.S. government.

To disclose any more developments in this film would rob the viewer of what makes it so successful: the slow and steady way in which new discoveries are revealed. Arrival manages to consistently engage the audience’s attention with deliberate pacing and thoughtful drama interwoven into a uniquely fascinating premise that is revealed only in the second half of the film. It is this premise that effectively drives the film to its perspective shifting and satisfying ending.