It’s dangerous to say an alien movie achieves any level of realism. That is, we won’t know which ones are realistic until the aliens show up in real life and confirm it. With that caveat, Arrival feels like an uncommonly realistic alien invasion movie, if only because it understands a simple fact of life often misunderstood by Hollywood: few of life’s biggest mysteries can be understood through conventional thinking. Too many alien movies assume that our interplanetary visitors will look, sound, and communicate like some gnarled version of ourselves. Arrival rewrites the rule book. Instead of filtering the aliens’ intentions through our understanding of human behavior, it asks us to put our thinking caps on and luxuriate in the unknown.
Arrival sees language as the key to understanding a foreign species. When twelve enormous spaceships–dubbed “shells”–suddenly arrive and hover over random points on the globe, the U.S. Army calls Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguistics expert who previously worked for the government translating terrorist videos. Working for the military left some scars. “You made quick work of that insurgent video,” a colonel (Forrest Whitaker) tells her. “You made quick work of those insurgents,” she quips back. Banks is also nursing a broken heart from a divorce and the painful loss of her daughter to a rare disease, so when she arrives at the makeshift base and is promptly escorted up into the depths of the shell, she does so with the courage of a woman with little left to lose.
Director Denis Villenueve (Prisoners, Sicario) doesn’t make us wait for her first encounter with the aliens. After all, this isn’t a monster movie. It’s about empathy and communication, and hiding them would only build their symbolism and hide their true selves. Even without the wait, though, their reveal is stunning: Familiar and foreign, they look like oversized octopi who walk gracefully on their seven legs and communicate by firing dissolving ink into the air in bizarre, roundish shapes. We’ve seen a lot of aliens with vaguely human arms and legs, and a mouth that sort of talks, but Arrival offers us a distinctly original vision of extra-terrestrial life.
Its depiction of human life is just as insightful. Adams is a commanding presence at the center of the film: a strong, confident woman to whom the men around her mostly defer. She’s the smartest person in the room, but it’s not just her intelligence that gives her strength. She also has the calm compassion to not assume a defensive position and prepare for the worst. As she expands her ability to communicate with the two aliens on the ship– her partner (Jeremy Renner) dubs them “Abbott and Costello”–other nations move past the investigative stage and begin preparing for a preemptive attack. It’s up to Louise to convince them to opt for peace.
Without spoiling the film’s breathtaking ending, I’ll only say that the plot takes twists and turns that are both impossible to foresee and deeply foreshadowed. Its plot, themes, and ingenious structure are so intertwined that they are impossible to separate, like so many braids of rope. It’s also the rare studio film that not only spouts philosophy about our collective humanity but also has the intelligence, diligence, and faith in its audience to thoroughly explore those ideas. With every cynical Hollywood trope that it discards, it becomes a more passionate appeal to the better angels of both Hollywood and its audience. A film of rare vision and beauty, Arrival is easily the most intelligent blockbuster released this year–and maybe any year.
Rating: 5 Mysterious, Soul-Searching Burritos Out of 5:
Featured image: Paramount Pictures