Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is living a life of quiet anonymity as a linguistics professor in a small college. She is also mourning the loss of her daughter Hannah (Abigail Pniowsky, Jadyn Malone, Julia Scarlet Dan) who died of cancer. The silence of her quiet life is shattered by the arrival of the Heptopods, aliens from far beyond our own galaxy. After listening to a snippet of the aliens’ language on a tape, Louise is tasked by the American military, specifically Colonel Weber (Forrest Whittaker) to translate the Heptopods language, find out why they came to earth and what they want with us. Louise works diligently with Theoretical Physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to translate the Heptopds language, he tries to decode it mathematically, she with words. She suggests it’s easier to communicate with the aliens using words and not sounds, she writes human on a whiteboard, the Heptopods, separated from the humans by a glass wall, respond with a splash of ink, like an octopus, the ink turns into a symbol and, Louise starts to study the symbol and translate it into English. Louise and Ian’s mission becomes more urgent, because the arrival of the Heptopods is a worldwide phenomenon, and the Chinese are starting to act more bellicose towards the Heptopods on their territory, and other nations are starting to act on their own as well. What began as a cooperative effort is rapidly falling apart. Can Louise and Ian translate this language before another nation acts rashly?
At first glance, Arrival seems like a mash-up of two older stories of alien invasion , Independence Day, with Will Smith for its non-humanoid aliens, and worldwide presence of the alien landing and an episode of the classic show Twilight Zone “To Serve Man” in which aliens present humans with a book which the humans try to translate. But Arrival is a much quieter, more contemplative story than these. There are lots of scenes where Louise is thinking, or reflecting on her daughter’s life and death. All of the elements of Louise’s life and her daughter’s life are important, and play a role in the final outcome. The story even manages to ask a big philosophical question, which adds to the intellectual nature of the film. The use of flashbacks is very effective in this film, the flashbacks tell a story in themselves and pack an emotional wallop. But then the film tries too hard to wrap everything neatly in a bow and the ending went too far in that regard. There were some elements that weren’t very logical, like how giant 7 legged aliens could navigate a spaceship, but Arrival was a pretty ambitious film, and it hit the mark on almost all its lofty goals.
The acting is good, but Amy Adams is great. She should have been nominated for an Oscar for sure. She had a complex role, where she was emotionally torn by her daughter’s death, yet intellectually sharp in her professional capacity. She carried this movie and was always believable as both mother and linguist. Jeremy Renner, on the other hand, has all the personality of a wet dishrag, he and Adams should have had great chemistry, but had none. Forrest Whittaker has an ersatz authority figure look, the casting director could have gotten someone like JK Simmons, and he would have been much better.
The direction is no great visual extravaganza, there are some decent exterior shots of what is supposed to be Montana, but this is not a special effects movie, and that works to its advantage. It’s a contemplative movie, not one filled with explosions or photon torpedoes. The pacing is good, and he gets at least one good performance. Not a big fan of Denis Villeneuve’s earlier work. Prisoners and Sicario are among his work, but I like the work he does here.
Arrival: Take me to your linguist?