Arrival mixes realism with wonder in story about alien contact

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Banks, a linguistics professor played by Adams, leads a team of investigators in hopes of unraveling an extraterrestrial mystery. Amy Adams stands in a mostly-empty classroom. Her character, Dr. Louise Banks, is a linguistics professor. She wonders aloud where the majority of her students are before she is asked to turn on the TV. When the news is revealed, class is dismissed and the school is evacuated. Everyone is stunned—aliens have arrived. Twelve pods, each the shape of an orange wedge, have landed on Earth. Each are suspended high above the ground, looming large over their surroundings. Schools are shut down and there is speculation on the news.

Banks is asked by Colonel Weber of the U.S. Army, played by Forest Whitaker, to help in translating the aliens’ language. Their response to the aliens is an attempt to understand them and more importantly, to avoid a declaration of war. The film moves slowly and deliberately. Director Dennis Villeneuve relishes the opportunities to hide information, not rushing to reveal what is to happen. The film carefully foreshadows through small pockets of information and scenes that are interwoven seamlessly into the flow of the film, only revealing their significance much later.

Arrival is brilliant, but it does not flaunt that. This hesitation to show everything all at once even extends to the aliens. At first exposure, the heptapods, as they are referred to, are shrouded in fog. A few tentacles emerge before some of the torso follows. The design of these aliens is nothing extravagant nor an attempt to be overly complicated. With the oversaturation of computer-generated imagery in the movie industry, simplicity has become commendable. The heptapods’ language is visually beautiful to watch. Words are written in inky circles, drawn by the aliens’ tentacles. The film follows a plausible progression in that the learning process to understand the aliens starts with simple concepts but quickly progresses to the humans eventually even using a translation app.

The pacing is organic, going slowly at the beginning. The film takes its time and utilizes this critical element wisely. While the U.S. Army deals with the alien ship that has landed in the United States, they work together with other governments’ that are intent on handling the situation. There is cooperation, but there is also mistrust. Some governments fear the aliens, exhibiting literal xenophobia, which raises questions of how far the aliens can be trusted and how far the humans can trust each other. The overarching question that everybody is trying to answer is summed up in the tagline of the movie: “Why are they here?” After no attack is launched and the spaceships remain stationary, the immediate surprise toward the alien arrival develops into a determination to understand their purpose.

At the mention of a weapon, tensions rise and mistrust brews. Arrival is an alien invasion movie about humanity. The perspective of the outsider gives shape to a vision of people unsure about one another, full of deceit and plots, trying to understand the world around them. The characters occasionally make small jokes, which are not in the same vein as Marvel movie jokes, but which try to add humorous quips wherever possible. They are part of the human dialogue, where people who are nervous or uncomfortable try and ease the tension, wishing to feel at ease again.

Despite the fantastical nature of the plot, it all still feels real. The use of linguistics as the thrust of the narrative is compelling and adds to the realism of the movie. When aliens arrive, diplomacy and communication are preferred over war and destruction. Banks and her partner, Ian Donnelly, played by Jeremy Renner, try to adapt to a language that they do not understand, while sharing theirs with the aliens. They are on a journey of an innately human nature—the two are trying to learn and understand.

They are trying to find meaning. Geographically, the plot sticks to just a few locations, and the compact feeling is satisfying. There is no posturing or trying to be something else than what the movie is. There is an honesty in its willingness to avoid a globetrotting plot. Meanwhile, the story itself is tight and succinct in a similar fashion. Every element is necessary and nothing is extraneous. Though some parts may not make sense or feel necessary at first, this is part of Villeneuve’s deliberately paced development. In terms of film technique, there are times when Villeneuve uses a mixture of close-ups and shots where everything aside from the subject is out of focus, along with asynchronous sound.

The combination of these factors works to create disorientation and separately, to create a sense of wistfulness. Clever photography continues as gravity shifts within the spaceship and the ground below is shown behind characters as if it is a wall. Knowledge is provided to viewers that characters do not yet have, raising tension in otherwise plain scenes. The concept itself of character knowledge is an important element to the film’s genius. Arrival is a brilliant film, but what makes it brilliant must be seen and not read in a review. The brilliance is a surprise, one which comes out of what seems at first to be merely a decent movie.

The beginning of the film provides an interesting premise with questionable potential. Arrival, however, turns out to be fantastic, to the point that it clearly ranks among the best U.S. films of 2016. It develops into a Vonnegut-esque plot of unexpected complexity. Saying any more would ruin the surprise.