There have been many films about what happens when the aliens arrive. Therefore, expecting one to be original and thoughtful, as well as having some genuine excitement might be unwise. I’m happy to report that Arrival, directed by Denis Villenueve, is a thinking person’s sci-fi, and has a luminous performance by Amy Adams.
Arrival has a twist that I can not in good conscience reveal or even hint at, but the film as a whole is concerned with time. As with many sci-fi works (off the top of my head I think of the Tralfamidoreans in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five) we learn that not all creatures experience time linearly. Let me leave it at that.
Adams plays a linguistics professor who is called on to help the whole military-industrial complex to communicate with aliens who have landed in seemingly random spots around the globe. Their ships look like giant contact lenses, they look like octopi (except with seven legs, so they are called heptapods) and their written language look like Rorschach tests. Adams is able to break the code but the bellicose Chinese are suspicious and threaten hostile action. Can Adams manage to save the day? Klaatu Barada Nikto!
Jeremy Renner co-stars as a theoretical physicist and Forrest Whitaker is a gruff colonel, but the film belongs to Adams. Once you understand the sequence of events, you will replay the movie in your head and realize that Adams has done a remarkable job in not giving it away. I am glad that she abandoned the Disney princess stuff and has done some very diverse work in the last few years, and this may be her best performance yet.
The “here come the aliens” movie this reminded me most of is Contact, which was based on a book by Carl Sagan, so it had some scientific chops. Arrival seems to be scientifically sound, although I don’t follow Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Twitter feed to find out what was not true or possible. But I wonder if any film has really captured what would happen if extraterrestrials were to make an appearance on Earth. Would we go apeshit? Would we head for the hills, or start shooting at them? Arrival suggests, and I would agree, that it would be science v. hysteria. Interestingly, this film makes no mention of religion, which The Day the Earth Stood Still was forced to do.