Twelve enormous spacecraft arrive at a dozen different locations around planet Earth. Governments do not know who is inside, nor what mission the ships are fulfilling. Scientists and the military are sent to get answers from these giant craft. The vessels are nicknamed “shells” because at first glance, they seem egg-shaped. Dr Louise Banks (Amy Adams), an eminent linguist, joins a theoretical physicist Dr Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and the US Army’s Colonel Weber (Forrest Whittaker) to lead a team to investigate a ship in Montana. They are looking to learn a way to translate the aliens’ language. The world has no idea if the aliens have peace or war in mind, but there is no doubt that the ships hanging in the air have disturbed the power balance of governments and the beliefs of billions.
Someone is “out there” and we have no clue what they want.
Eventually, Banks and Donnelly go inside the Montana ship and see for themselves the non-humanoid inhabitants. The aliens communicate in symbols, but even as a linguistic character set is built through a long process of trial and error, the precise meaning of the alien visit eludes Dr Banks. Unfortunately the news from other shell sites is not promising. Can the scientists and linguists discover how to communicate with the visitors before a frightened, trigger-happy military decides to launch an attack?
ARRIVAL is the new movie from Denis Villeneuve, the Canadian director responsible for a number of well-regarded features including INCENDIES (2010) and SICARIO (2015). The screenplay is by American screen writer Eric Heisserer and is adapted from a short story from award-winning science fiction author Ted Chiang.
Although the film has elements in common with alien first contact movies like well… CONTACT (1997), CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977) and THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (1951) this production assumes that the audience knows the tropes and clichés of this kind of film. Rather than doing the expected, Villeneuve has attempted to deliver a believable and nuanced tale about the difficulties of communicating with beings who are utterly different from us physically, emotionally, spiritually and mentally. Dr Banks and her staff have a code to crack. The film attempts to simultaneously deliver the suspense of a team achieving a time-critical goal and a sense of existential awe. Although this makes it sound like MISSION IMPOSSIBLE meets THE TREE OF LIFE, it’s probably something closer to a cleverer, more serious take on THE ABYSS (1989).
Amy Adams is excellent as Louise Banks. The supporting cast are solid. The special effects are as good as one would expect for contemporary, serious science-fiction. Villeneuve has chosen strong and simple designs for the alien technology. Composer Johann Johannsson supplies a score that suggests mystery and other-wordliness. All parts of this production are working hard to create an unusually smart and atmospheric extraterrestrial flick. The writing is the star of the show. The AccessReelers I saw this with, argued about the story afterwards. Some were perplexed and others like myself found it moving.