Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Paramount, 116 minutes, PG-13
* * * * ½
What if they came? What if one day a dozen 1,500-foot-high clam shell-shaped alien vessels were parked at various sites across the globe–many of them in nations that didn't like each other very much? Could Planet Earth cooperate with itself long enough to figure out what the travelers want? What would be priority number one: attempts to communicate, or reflexive military maneuvers? Good questions, but these are just the tip of the spaceship in this smart movie whose only real flaw is that it raises script complications that are hard to resolve clearly.
Okay–so a sci-fi film based on the premise that humankind might not be a welcoming species is a genre staple. So too is one in which a few intrepid scientists try to keep the dogs of war at bay because they detect no indication of hostile intent. In this case, our clear thinkers are Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguist, and Dr. Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a Department of Defense scientist. And, yes, it's another movie in which it never occurs to leaders that maybe it's not a good idea to piss off visitors whose technology is rather obviously superior to that of Earthlings. Is there any reason to see still another First Contact movie, especially one centered on a beat-the-clock scenario? (Banks and Donnelly need to crack the communication code before China and Russia launch preemptive strikes against ships on their soil.) Add American exceptionalism to the clichéd parts of the film. Why is it only American scientists—not one in Pakistan or Somalia, for instance–who think they should be sure before raising the specter of an intergalactic war?
You should see this film because everything else about it is fresh, smart, and provocative. Although it's often beautiful to watch, Arrival is much more than easy-to-digest eye candy. It asks a lot of other questions that stretch the boundaries of the sci-fi genre. Think of the long human quest to understand other species on Earth. How would we communicate with aliens about whom we know nothing? How would we ask non-humanoid aliens this simple question: "What is your purpose?" What does the word "weapon" mean? These aliens don't communicate by speech; they spray a sort of squid ink that forms symbols that must be decoded and many of them seem to be metaphors that add another level of complexity. I like this. Most sci-fi films resolve the communication conundrum by postulating some sort of direct communication becomes possible–either in language (Babel fish anyone?) or via common understanding of universals principles of mathematics or physics (Close Encounters). Here's a question for you: Universal for whom? Einstein tried to tell us that time is relative, and Arrival dares push this a step further and presents us with aliens not subject to human limitations of time and physics. Perhaps, on an empathic level some of us get that. Toss in a little bit of Kurt Vonnegut; Louise Banks seems to be unstuck in time. So much so that her most vivid memories are of things that haven't yet happened to her! She's not a space/time traveler in any sort of 2001 Space Child sort of way–more like a person who dips in and out of an incomplete not-always-linear dream. Why not? If time is relative and humans can have flashbacks, why not flash-forwards?
The best way to view Arrival is to suspend judgment and don't assume that what you see is what is happening in the conventional sense. (It's akin to Interstellar in that regard.) Surrender to the likelihood that at some point you'll be a bit lost because the film paints itself into an intellectual corner and tinkers with space, time, and reality until some of the logic frays at the edges. Look up the term "zero sum game, as it factors into the movie, though more as an idea than as a clearly defined reciprocity principle.
You can enjoy Arrival on less lofty levels as well. It's gorgeous to behold and the use of stark contrasts makes it more so. The alien ship in the U.S. hovers over Montana, whose rolling landscape and majestic mountains are the painterly counterpoint to the dark, barren interior of the alien ship and the bland khaki/camo of military personnel and their encampment. Ms. Adams herself is a comely contrast to the gigantic heptapod aliens. Pay close attention to the frenzied patterns sprayed by the aliens during a key late moment in the film; in two fantastic pieces of closing sequences cinematography, you will find echoes of these patterns. You'll also discover that some of the film's sentimentality isn't as simple as you first thought.
You can also enjoy very fine performances from Adams and Renner. Adams is more than pulchritudinous; she's also a serious actress. In Arrival she strikes the proper balance between terror and fascination, fragility and competency, intuition and deduction, and vulnerability and sophistication. Renner triumphs by playing against macho stereotypes. Enjoy it also because it's no E.T. offering easy-to-swallow palliatives and warm, fuzzy worldviews. It is unsettling, but not a Doomsday message; it messes with our heads. And it's way better than most of what else is on cinematic offer at present. Whatever "present" might mean!