“Arrival” has more serious intents and dares to ask vital questions: If alien presence would indeed make its presence felt in our world, how would we react to it? Do we try to connect peacefully through language or treat it with more aggressive action to protect our own interests? What do we do if we’d be given the power to know what will happen in our future?
The situation of first contact presented in “Arrival” by Director Denis Villeneuve (“Prisoners”, “Sicario” and the new “Blood Runner” movie) is not exactly new as the premise that “we are not alone” has been used in many other sci-fi movies and even TV shows, from “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “E.T.” to “V” and “The X Files”. Here, a dozen gargantuan oblong UFO’s quickly arrive soon after the film’s start. They are seen hovering just above the ground in various countries throughout our planet, from Japan, Russia, China, etc. to, of course, the U.S. where they land in Montana.
But the aliens are not portrayed as hostile invaders who come to quickly conquer and dominate earthlings, like in “Independence Day” and “War of the Worlds”. It explores a more realistic scenario where the aliens try to communicate with us, but the difference in language makes understanding and interaction very difficult.
The narrative is told from the point of view of Louise Banks (Amy Adams) a linguistics professor who’s brought in by the military to try the laborious process of communicating with the aliens, along with a physicist, Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner). They get to confront two of the visitors from outer space face to face, although behind a glass barrier, calling them Abbott and Costello. They want the aliens to answer the all important question: what is the purpose of their visit?
Louise has to figure out exactly why the aliens come before China makes a violent attack on them. The film explores not only the difficulty of communicating with the aliens but also that of between humans. Different nations and peoples have conflicting opinions and are resistant to cooperation and in sharing the information they have individually gathered from the aliens.
How Louise succeeds to convince other world leaders to collaborate in a unified approach with the aliens is part of the film’s climax. The film is somewhat reminiscent of the 1951 film “The Day the Earth Stood Still”, remade in 2008 with Keanu Reeves as the alien Klaatu, who warns earth that if peace is not pursued, our planet will be destroyed.
The script is written in such a way that we get to connect totally with Louise, right from the opening scene showing a montage of the birth and death of her daughter. This gives the film an emotional undercurrent that makes us relate with her and that will be very crucial to the film’s surprising finale with its genuine shock value, something that’s lacking in a somewhat similar sci-fi film about the mysteries of life,”Interstellar”.
It is to Amy Adams’ credit that she chooses not to overdramatize her acting but to treat Louise’s own inner journey with a subtly nuanced and effectively internalized portrayal of her character. Her interpretation of Louise is as impressive as her portrayal of the naive young nun in “Doubt” where she sparred with Meryl Streep.
Her effective performance is aided by the film’s stunning texture and cinematography, showing what seems to be flashbacks of tender images of a child doing ordinary things with her mother in contrast with the scenes showing the stark meetings with the aliens inside their space ship.
In the end, what we remember most is Ian’s pickup line to Louise before the film ends: "I've had my head tilted up to the stars for as long as I can remember. But you know what surprised me the most? It wasn't meeting them. It was meeting you." And that’s the start of their sweet but sad love story.