The ambitious ideas explored in the science-fiction drama Arrival, boosted by Amy Adams’s prime performance, got the gears in my head spinning, although the material did little to fully draw me in and get my heart pumping.
The film revolves around a linguist, Louise Banks (Amy Adams, Big Eyes, American Hustle), who is called in by Colonel Weber of the US Army (Forest Whitaker, Platoon, The Crying Game) and partnered with Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner, Marvel’s The Avengers, The Hurt Locker), a theoretical physicist, for a unique task: heading to one of twelve gigantic pods that have landed on Earth and communicating with the aliens inside to find out why they are here.
Arrival, directed by Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Blade Runner 2049) and based on the short story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, digs deep into the original plot device of deciphering an extraterrestrial language. This stands out in an age where the typical alien movie hinges on war and violence. The aliens, looking like large black squids with seven tentacles, become designated as “heptapod” — Greek for “seven feet.” They stay behind a clear wall in the pod and, when the humans are present, spray ink on the wall in circles that look almost like C’s; little protuberances here and there differentiate them from each other so that they can constitute a written language.
Adams’s portrayal of Banks gives off a patient, benign air throughout the movie with her calm voice and gentle curiosity towards the heptapods. It’s unfortunate that the secondary characters are lackluster. Donnelly is quite uninteresting, pretty much standing there so Banks can bounce her ideas off him. Weber and Michael Stuhlberg’s Halpern, one from the military and the other from the government, are the kind of stereotypically difficult people you would expect under any circumstances tied to UFOs.
The movie does well in making you think as it takes steps to progress through the heptapod translation, but then there comes the impending war (albeit little violence) when countries mistrust each other and a general expresses his intention to engage in combat against the heptapods. When the purpose for their arrival becomes realized, it twists the plot and will surely do the same for the minds of anyone intrigued by physics. All along the way, though, the movie makes you feel as if you’re observing everything through the wall that separates humans from the heptapods, never being invited to go beyond that point. Even the flashbacks between Banks and her daughter stir up much more cool thoughtfulness than warm emotions.
If you’re interested in something that treats the subject of aliens a little differently and more intelligently from the rest of the genre, Arrival is a good fit. Just don’t expect it to grab you by the chest and thrust you into the story.
Windup score: 70/100