When alien craft arrive, communication is key.
Arrival’s hook is a strong one: if we were ever to encounter truly alien life, how could we possibly begin to communicate with them.
There’s simply no frame of reference, no root or shared experience to draw from. Even the very way we think is likely to be so fundamentally different that it might not be possible. They might not even conceive of the concept of ‘they…’
This is the challenge presented to linguist Dr. Louise Banks, played by Amy Adams. With gigantic craft spread out across the globe and military strikes mere moments away, she has to figure out a way to say hello.
That’s some heavy sci-fi stuff right there and more than enough content for an entire film, but director Denis Villeneuve and writer Eric Heisserer bring in plenty of extra elements despite a small character count.
It’s a more intimate and emotional film than you might expect (the trailers have been rather cold) and much of that comes from Ted Chiang’s 1998 short tale The Story of You- which you absolutely should not read about before you see the film.
I don’t want to spoil any part of the experience so I’ll keep it to generalities - Arrival is a slow enough film that requires patience and attention and contains some leaps in understanding and logic which I found a little jarring.
Beyond those minor issues though it’s a fresh and thoughtful take from a genre which too often slips into bombast. Adams is perfectly cast as the lead, with every nuance of her performance struggling and striving to understand and be understood, while her personal life has its own issues.
The rest of the cast doesn’t get a whole lot to do, though it’s nice to see Jeremy Renner landing a cerebral role for a change. Those extra-terrestrial beings are stars in their own right, but no more on that here.
Arrival is calmer and more thoughtful sci-fi film than we’ve come to expect, with layers of emotion and drama beyond the really big question of inter-stellar communication. And the very best sci-fi is all in the ideas.