Dennis Villeneuve’s Arrival is an engrossing Sci-Fi experience which substitutes weapons for ingenuity. The film is a refreshing take on the first contact trope, as Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) attempts to uncover the alien visitors’ intentions through using her skills in linguistics. The result is an engaging experience which conjures drama and tension without violence, relying upon a captivating performance by Adams and a story which is grand in scope but manages to remain personal.
Little time is wasted setting up the aliens’ arrival. The visitors, dubbed Heptapods, position twelve ships at seemingly random locations throughout the world. The affected countries establish communications with one another in an attempt to ascertain what the Heptapods’ intentions are. Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) is sent to recruit Dr. Banks after some previous successful linguistic work with the army. Not every country agrees on a particular approach and China’s preference for aggression establishes a simmering threat to Dr. Banks’ peaceful method.
Much of the emotional resonance in the movie is attributed to a tragedy in Dr. Banks’ personal life. This tragedy, and the scenes depicting Banks’ personal life, creates an additional layer of tension which compliments the pressure situation of trying to communicate with the Heptapods. Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), an astrophysicist, is an effective foil for Banks and the two build their own relationship as they attempt to construct one with the Heptapods.
Banks’ efforts to communicate with the Heptapods are key to getting an answer to the question: ‘What is your purpose on earth?’ She establishes visual aids as the most effective method of creating an understanding with the visitors. It’s fascinating to witness a rapport develop as they teach constructs of our language that we take for granted. Each breakthrough that Banks makes is met with further pressure from Colonel Weber as the twelve countries stop cooperating with one another.
It becomes frustrating that Weber often doubts Dr. Banks, despite the obvious duress he is under, as this slips into cliché territory. Whittaker’s accent becomes as inconsistent as his character’s motivations. One particular plot point is too quickly glossed over whilst another borders on descent into the realm of silly. However, Adams’ engaging performance keeps the audience grounded as the film reaches its climax.
Fans of recent Sci-Fi hits such as Interstellar and Midnight Special should enjoy Villneuve’s Arrival, as it poses thought provoking questions whilst managing not to lose sight of the human aspect. This is owed to Adams’ excellent performance. The movie’s more ambitious elements remain grounded through her ability to engage the audience as the Heptapods’ true intentions are deciphered. Indeed the prevailing message, that humanity must work together, has never been more relevant.