Arrival (2016)

casey Arrival is the kind of movie destined to elicit longform essays and tedious political comparisons, but I’ll just say this: it’s some damned fine science fiction.

brooke It really is… and not only that, it’s sci-fi based around the science of linguistics! … No, wait, reader, come back! Being a big language nerd myself, I’m biased in favor of this film from the get-go, but there’s a lot more to it than that.

casey We liked director Denis Villeneuve’s last movie Sicario quite a bit, so I was excited to see this one as it started to pick up some buzz. And disappoint it did not.

brooke So, Arrival follows Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguist and professor who is recruited to serve as a translator when alien ships land at–well, hover above–twelve sites around the globe. She’s sent to a site in Montana, where she joins a team of scientists working to communicate with the aliens. The seven-legged aliens, which the scientists name Heptapods, work on this communication from their end as well, allowing the human visitors access for a limited time every 18 hours through a special gravity-bending opening in their ships, visits that Banks leads alongside theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner). Meanwhile, political leaders worldwide are wary of the Heptapods’ intentions, which creates a lot of pressure to learn their language quickly and creates some interesting shifts in the dynamic of the global effort later in the movie.

casey I love the room inside the Heptapod ship. It’s a dark, empty space divided by a pane of glass: on one side we and the characters see the Heptapod ambassadors, eyeless spiderlike creatures who float in a white vapor and communicate via ear shattering groans and a cryptic circular script. On the other side are the humans and whatever scientific and military gear they bring with them. That room, and the divide between its inhabitants, conveys a wonderful sense of strangeness in part because of its plainness. It’s the arena for the movie’s key conundrum: How do you communicate with beings who seem to lack any common points of reference? And what happens when the human side becomes increasingly fractured as they begin to communicate successfully?

brooke How do you teach an alien the words you need them to know? How do you know for sure that how you’ve interpreted their language is the right way? How does any of this work when the beings trying to communicate are so vastly different in every way?

casey The fact that Arrival deals with these issues in an intellectually and emotionally satisfying way is what makes it one of the best movies I’ve seen this year.

brooke The last 20 minutes or so have some jagged leaps forward and unexpected variables but overall it’s not odd enough to mess up the experience. And credit where credit is due: Amy Adams nailed this movie. She has really improved as an actor over the past few years and Arrival is her best performance yet (even though I’ll always have a soft spot for Enchanted).

casey She’s a champ. Jeremy Renner’s okay too, in his stolid sort of way, and Forest Whitaker is also there as the General overseeing the operation with an accent that’s impossible to place. But the story does a great job transitioning between scenes of wonder and ordinary feats of scientific competence, with a few genuine thrills as well.

brooke And the film does a great job of playing with dreams, time, and other abstract concepts. What I loved most was not knowing where the story was headed. Even as I could feel the climax beginning to ramp up, I wasn’t sure what would happen next. So often in genre films it’s easy to guess the next move, but Arrival felt original in a way that few science fiction stories have for me. As I’ve mulled over the movie and its meaning, my appreciation for it has only deepened.
I don’t want to say much more except that I recommend it for anyone looking for something fresh.

casey It’s smart and well-paced, never inaccessible or boring, and it’s one of my favorites this year.

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