Movie Review: Arrival

Sci fi invasion film tries to take a less panic-filled approach

Directed by Denis Villeneuve
With Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Tzi Ma

Science fiction films about alien invasions fall into two broad categories. Most are explosion-filled battle stories, as mankind faces off against evil-intentioned invaders with superior technology. A smaller number of films is more contemplative, taking a serious look what could happen if spaceships came in peace, or if their intentions were unknown.

Arrival falls into the latter category, and scores for being intelligent if a bit convoluted. The film, by Canadian director Denis Villeneuve from a script by Eric Heisserer, takes as its starting point something many films skip over. The aliens cannot speak English, or any Earth language. The bulk of the plot relates to establishing communication.

One day, a dozen spacecraft arrive at Earth and hover over strangely selected areas. The spacecraft look like giant metal contact lenses.

The one that arrives in the United States parks above Montana, and puts the military into a tizzy. They bring in linguist Dr. Louise Banks (played by Amy Adams) and mathematician Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to try to make sense of what the aliens want. Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) tries to support them by keeping the rest of the military from blowing the spaceship up. It is not as easy as it sounds.

The film works to balance wow-factor scenes such as entering the spaceship and encountering the aliens with dense dialogue about the nature of communication and the pitfalls of misunderstanding.

Running parallel with the US efforts to communicate, there are 11 other teams in other countries including China. Cooperation is not smooth, to say the least.

Amy Adams in particular stands out in the cast, making a credible linguist. The aliens don't seem to have much interest in math, so Jeremy Renner has less to do, but a second civilian is needed for dramatic purposes. Other cast members are a bit more stereotypical, playing the military types that want to blow up anything they don't understand.

Helping the action along is a somewhat dissonant score by Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, who also scored The Theory of Everything and Sicario. He earned Oscar nominations for those, and a Golden Globe for The Theory of Everything. The score in Arrival plays a crucial part in creating the unsettling mood where at any second things could spin out of control.

Director Denis Villeneuve usually makes somewhat complex films. His 2013 film Enemy had Jake Gyllenhaal in a double role as a man looking for a film actor who is his exact double, and then taking over parts of his life. Prisoners, also from 2013, takes a look at a father crossing the boundaries of the law to find the criminal who kidnapped his daughter. His 2015 thriller Sicario, about the war on drugs in the US and Mexico, was praised for going beyond the standard action and thriller film cliches. The director is currently working on Bladerunner 2049, another sci fi film.

Arrival fits in with his previous love of somewhat twisted plots. The narrative is anything but simple, even though it seems so at first glance. By the end, though, what at first looked like a linear story is more of a Möbius strip for the viewer to sort out.

People hoping for a sci fi battle picture will be sorely disappointed, as the Arrival goes in completely different direction. It is closer to Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind, with a little bit of The Day the Earth Stood Still added to it. It offers some ideas about humanity, communication and cooperation instead of endless gunfire and explosions.

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