If you try to check the number of movies about aliens, IMDB will tell you that it’s a list in total of 274 movies. Wikipedia will give you an even longer list that includes everything from sci-fi classics to comedy parodies to adult film parodies. The idea of little green men or some other type of being from beyond our world coming to Earth is not a new one. Jonathan Swift had it in Guilliver’s Travels in 1727. Voltaire used it to satirize philosophers in the 1750s in “Micromegas.” And of course, there’s the granddaddy of them all — the tale that popularized the concept — H.G. Wells’ seminal 1898 novel, The War of the Worlds. All of these and more have been mined by Hollywood to some effect or another throughout the 20th and 21st Century. Aliens have been cute lost travelers like in E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. They’ve been fearless hunters like in Predator or Alien. They’ve been menacing conquerors as in Independence Day. They’ve been insidious infiltrators like in Invasion of the Body Snatchers or The Thing. They’ve been benefactors looking for peace such as in The Day the Earth Stood Still. And they’ve been odd creatures we are desperate to understand like in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
I bring these up because all of them were in the back of my head when I went to see Arrival. What kind of aliens would it depict? Would they be the benefactors or the conquerors? How would they make contact? Because, in essence, that is the issue at hand in Arrival. Whereas most alien visitation/invasion movies find a way to get us to what purpose the aliens are here for, Arrival stays in that initial moment and stretches it. And stretches it. And stretches it in order to ratchet tension and build momentum.
At its heart is Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) a linguistics professor with above top secret level clearance who has done work for the Pentagon. She’s a woman traipsing through a quiet life — one full of both joy and sadness. Her work translating for the military has her called into action when twelve strange and massive ships descend throughout the world. Unlike other alien movies, they don’t park themselves above capital cities. The one in the U.S. is in Montana. There’s others in Japanese waters and over Siberian wastes and in Venezuelan outskirts. The aliens’ arrival has her join the team led by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) and CIA Agent Halpern (Michael Stuhlbarg). Working hand in hand with astrophysics lead Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), Dr. Banks is given the difficult task of finding a way of communicating with the aliens — whom they take to call “heptapods.” But how do you establish a line of communication with something that doesn’t even conceive of language as you do? How can you know if they’re brokering a trade in peace or a threat for war? And what happens when the twelve other teams around the globe — some serving very different masters than Louise and Ian — come up with entirely different answers?
Let’s go through the other members of the cast quickly. Renner tones down a lot of his usual wit to create an Ian who is laid back and sure of things but able to follow Louise’s lead. He’s right there with her in regards to their awe over the heptapods. Whitaker and Stuhlbarg do the harder, more thankless job of representing both the government and military overseeing their operations as well as displaying the intense pressure that is sitting over all of them. Louise and Ian may be looking at the heptapods with wonder, but they see threats — both internal and external. Mark O’Brien and Max Walker do the work of being the rank-and-file soldiers who are exposed to the outside media pressures and don’t know what to make of the heptapods. Tzi Ma, Russell Yuen and several others work towards showing the varied responses around the world — some scientists like Louise and others military like Weber. All do a decent job of portraying a wide variety of human responses to an otherworldly moment.
All that said, Adams is the heart and soul of this movie and it all hinges on whether or not you buy both her internal struggle as well as the hardship she’s given trying to find a way to talk to seven-limbed aliens that speak in inky goo. Her is a complex role. On the one hand, she’s a linguist given the chance of a lifetime and she approaches speaking to the aliens with wonder. On the other, she’s a woman that’s balancing deeply personal losses which might compromise her ability to get the job done on time to avert war with the aliens. She does her normal best for the role and you get to see her go through both journeys towards a resolution that’s equal parts serious drama and science-fiction.
Director Denis Villeneuve has managed to make two different yet strong character-driven movies prior to this in Prisoners and Sicario. The sensibilities that he brought there he brings to this tale and it’s interesting that, though the movie seems to jump from time to time inside Louise’s memories and out, that we never lose our sense of what is going on. His vistas of the Montana landing site are beautiful yet haunting. The links to the other research teams around the globe feel like the kind of thing that we would do in today’s day.
The heptapods are unlike any aliens you’ve seen in a movie before and their language is entirely like nothing you’ve noticed before. Credit for that should go to production designer Patrice Vermette and supervising art director Isabelle Guay as well as to the folks at Rodeo FX, Hybride, Framestore and Raynault VFX all who manage to create aliens that are so far removed from the “sexy green-skinned alien chick” of the past. Also major kudos to Stephen and Christopher Wolfram of Mathematica, who worked towards ensuring the “logogram” language of the heptapods is unlike anything we’ve seen before. All of which adds to the tension that the movie builds towards: can Louise actually crack their language in time?
Based on the short story by Ted Chiang, “Story of Your Life” and adapted by Eric Heisserer, the movie lives with that Sword of Damocles sense above it. Like I said above, the movie chooses to not skip towards the resolution of what the aliens want. Instead that is the purpose of the movie and the source of its tension. What are the heptapods doing on Earth? What do they want? Friends or foes? Is what they’re offering a poisoned chalice or the chance to leap ahead of other nations technologically? All of this amps up while Louise and Ian are desperately trying to learn their language and understand the heptapods. Naturally, humans bicker, disagree on meaning and fight.
I feel like I haven’t told you enough about Arrival but that’s by design. Major elements to this story should be learned as the story unfolds. It is surprising in that is both a personal/micro story and an epic/macro story. It touches on how we deal with grief and loss as well as how societies respond to threats and fear — the natural human inclination to run away from all those emotions failing when they’re staring us right in the face. It also combines enough scientific hypotheses on language development, sensory perception and Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity to appeal to hard science people. But folks with no science background don’t need to worry. It is easy to follow.
I liked Arrival quite a great deal. Adams delivers another great performance (expect nominations for awards for her). It’s interesting that it arrives — pardon the pun — at the moment that it does. Because its message of uniting to solve problems, of working together, of taking our time to listen and learn to communicate seems so relevant today. One day humanity may yet make contact with beings from another world. How will we coordinate a response? What will we say? Will we respond with fear? Or with hope?