There is a sense of unease in America. Protests arise sporadically, but otherwise public spaces seem a lot more desolate. No one is quite sure if the arrival of new powers spells impending doom.
The aliens have arrived.
I’m not sure if the plan to release Arrival in a post-election world was a conscious one, but it sure feels at least a little intentional. Alien invasion films have always emphasized the power of humanity: in order to stop impossibly dangerous outside forces, we must simultaneously come together as one while realizing that any individual person can make a huge impact.
While many alien invasion flicks focus on destroying iconic landmarks, Arrival is much more interested in trying to understand the aliens. That’s why the film’s protagonist, Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), is a linguist.
It’s in this linguistic sense that Arrival differentiates itself from other alien invasion stories. Based on the short story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, the film frames itself as a struggle to communicate with those unlike us, rather than as an ‘us vs. them’ narrative.
However, I should emphasize that calls for unity amidst oppression only highlight (often white) privilege, and that the parallels we project upon Arrival only work to a certain extent. In real life, there are no aliens to allow us to replace our anthropologic xenophobia with extraterrestrial. It is, after all, still a work of fiction.
Written by Eric Heisserer, the story surrounds a world where twelve alien pods have arrived at random locations around the world. They do not seem to present any urgent danger (in fact, they have very little impact on the space that surrounds them), but humankind is still nervous. Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) recruits Dr. Banks and scientist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to help communicate with the alien pod located in Montana.
This is all juxtaposed over Dr. Banks’s loss of her child to a rare disease. It serves as a reminder that even when all seems lost, we should continue to fight.
Directed by Denis Villeneuve, Arrival is very much an academic’s sci-fi film. There are very few explosions, and quite a bit of scientific jargon. The tension builds much as the camera zooms: slowly and methodically. If you are into it, the movie will be calming and satisfying. If not, the movie will be dull and tedious.
There is definitely a lack of control for the audience here. In a lot of ways, Arrival is like watching other people complete a puzzle. Only in this case, the puzzle involves extraterrestrials. The film introduces several problems to be solved, but since the problems exist within a fictional world, the audience is forced to wait for the characters to explain it to the audience. If it weren’t for the captivating stakes and sense of space, I suspect the movie would be boring for many more people.
Because of the film’s puzzle-like nature, Adams is the only actor with all that much to do. Renner has great chemistry with her, and Whittaker fosters an authoritative presence, but they don’t bring any vitality to the table. Everyone does a great job, but the film is just much more focused on Adams’s internal than any other actor’s external.
As it exists, the biggest drama comes from the extreme sense of uncertainty. A bleak color palate, barely moving cameras and disorienting sound all serve to create the impression that something sinister is just around the corner. Because of this, every moment holds importance as the audience holds their breath.
In the end, Arrival’s release date makes it all the more relevant. If it were released two weeks ago, it may have come across as a bit too sentimental, but today it comes as an uplifting distraction to present difficulties. Unlike the aliens in Independence Day: Resurgence, the presence of these cinematic aliens is a pleasant arrival.