When weird spaceships land on Earth, humanity’s leading linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) leads an elite group to investigate. The linguistic professor and her team have to make contact with these “aliens” as nations across the world start to get edgy. As countries ready their arms, Banks and company must race against time to communicate with the extra-terrestrial beings hoping to solve a mystery that could get them all killed and end the human race as they know it. This is more than just another science fiction movie. It’s a story about human psychology and how far we are willing to go, but that what’s more is that it shows us how far we are willing to go to not work together.
It helps that the crew have made the aliens as alien-looking as possible, in terms of: physiology, psychology and linguistic discourse. The spacecraft are big constructions that float silently many metres above the surface. Every eighteen hours, a door opens allowing several eager and curious humans to enter the gravity-warping interior. When I first saw the aliens, I thought they looked very much like giant hands but then I changed my mind when they altered in appearance to the mouth of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu. Between the humans and the now coined “Heptapods”, is a transparent wall which is used as a window for the two species to communicate.
Banks’ investigation of the Heptapods is what gives the film its legs. What’s more, she proves she’s worthy of her acclaim when she shows us how intelligent she is with languages. She rattles out terminology that nobody would understand unless you’re familiar with the discourse and analysing languages as a social construct. Earth has no one leader so the Heptapods have scattered twelve spacecraft across the world. Why twelve? Well, there are twelve months in a year and Jesus had twelve disciples. We also have twelve Olympians, twelve days of Christmas and twelve players on a cricket team (including scorer). Throughout history, religion and mythology, the numbers twelve and three are in abundance.
Much alike our own world, the Chinese and Russian governments have a tendency to throw their weight around when they don’t get their own way. Like many smart people, Banks is able to put her linguistic terminology into “English” for the military types, headed by Colonel (Forest Whitaker) and CIA representative, Agent Halpern (Michael Stuhlbarg). Eric Heissenerer’s script is intelligent and thought-provoking yet humorous. Jeremy Renner’s Ian Donnelly trying to make a link between Sheena Easton having a 1980 hit in the countries where the twelve spacecraft are situated. Maybe it’s just a happy coincidence. Adams is a broken woman, grieving over a loved one. This proves to be a non-cringey emotional twist, ingeniously entwined with the events taking place around her.
There aren’t many actresses in Hollywood who could have utilized that thread without it becoming a cringeworthy “cry for attention.” As an audience, we don’t have to look any further than Amy Adams (Batman V Superman) who plays Banks with professionalism yet with the erratic personality deserved of a recluse used to living in her own little world. In contrast, Adams also plays a character that is exciting and punchy, like when she sees the aliens for the first time. She is the movie’s soul, and director Villeneuve spends a lot of time making good use of the extreme close up shots on Adams, and we don’t see the aliens until she does. This was a bold move but a necessary one.
Arrival is a wonderfully refined science fiction story whose visceral and psychological plot is very relevant to today’s world. More than most current science fiction movies, it has a lot of potent and brutally honest things to say about modern day society incorporating a very harsh yet accurate sense of social realism and also showing us the political aspects for added effect. It’s a movie that shows us that we are quick to put petty things like politics and economics over human welfare. Moreover, it tells us that we need to make more of an effort to unite by breaking cultural barriers. If we’re to survive as a species, we need to be as open as possible by not letting things get lost in translation.
Villeneuve shows us the 21st century world in all its horror, or glory. It shows us all the bad stuff but also some of the good. It shows us that humanity is fearful of itself but also what it does not understand. We fear difference and we’d rather kill each other than face that. With excellent performances, sensational cinematography and an eye-opening plot, Arrival is a mongrel hybrid of social realism and science fiction. That being said, is that a bad thing?