ARRIVAL (2016) is a thought-provoking science fiction film that joins the ranks of other recent science fiction hits, films like INTERSTELLAR (2014), THE MARTIAN (2015), GRAVITY (2013), and DISTRICT 9 (2009). That being said, it doesn’t quite reach the same impressive blow-your-mind heights of Christopher Nolan’s INTERSTELLAR, but it does come close.
Alien ships have suddenly descended upon Earth, but these aren’t the war-like machines from H.G. Wells’ WAR OF THE WORLDS. On the contrary, these humongous ships simply hover peacefully above ground with no sign of activity inside or out. At first authorities all over the world aren’t even sure they are occupied.
But occupied they are, as a door to each ship opens every few hours, allowing authorities around the world access to them, and everyone has the same question: what are they doing here?
The militaries of the world especially want to know because they’re fearful the aliens might be planning an invasion. And so in the U.S., the military surrounds the ship, and lead officer Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) assembles a team to make contact with the aliens led by linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and scientist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner).
And this really is Amy Adam’s movie, because the film revolves around her character, Louise Banks. It’s Louise who faces the daunting task of trying to communicate with the aliens, of trying both to teach the aliens our language and learn theirs. By far, these scenes are the best in the movie, very thought-provoking, and highly captivating.
Banks also has been dealing with a personal crisis, as she had recently lost her teenage daughter to cancer. Throughout the film, Banks sees flashes of moments with her daughter, as there seems to be some connection between their past and the aliens she’s now communicating with, but what it is, she has no idea. Moreover, she’s exhausted and knows that these episodes could simply be the result of too little sleep.
ARRIVAL was directed by Denis Villeneuve, who directed SICARIO (2016), which was my favorite movie last year. One of the main reasons I wanted to see ARRIVAL was because Villeneuve was directing it. And he doesn’t disappoint.
There are some very memorable scenes in this movie. The image of the huge ships hovering just above land are very cinematic, although not entirely original. DISTRICT 9 used similar images to great effect as well.
But the scene where the aliens first appear to Louise and Ian is a good one, very creepy and suspenseful. And the ensuing scenes where Louise and Ian work to communicate with the aliens are fascinating to watch.
The film does try to generate suspense in other areas, as some of the other countries, specifically China and Russia, are less patient with the aliens than the United States and threaten to blow up the alien ships before sufficient contact is made, making Louise’s job a race against time, but the best scenes in this film are the the thought-provoking science fiction ones.
The screenplay by Eric Heisserer is decent. Heisserer wrote the scripts for a bunch of recent horror movies, including the reboot of A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (2009), the reimagining/prequel THE THING (2011), and LIGHTS OUT (2016). I wasn’t crazy about any of these movies, but I liked ARRIVAL a lot, so this is easily Heisserer’s best screenplay to date.
I enjoyed the story and the characterizations, but what I didn’t like as much was the ending. For its big payoff, the moment audiences eagerly await throughout the film, which is the answer to the all important question: just what are the aliens doing here? I thought was less than satisfying.
I totally get it from Louise’s perspective. I understand what she learns and why it’s so mind-blowing. From her point of view, it’s really cool. But from the aliens’ point of view, it’s less so. I couldn’t help but wonder after learning the reason for the aliens’ visit if their actions made complete sense. I’m not so sure. The ending to Christopher Nolan’s INTERSTELLAR worked better for me.
The acting here is first-rate. I’m a huge fan of Amy Adams, and once again she delivers a terrific performance. Dr. Louise Banks is the central character in the movie, and Adams is more than up to the task of carrying this film on her shoulders. She’s believable as the brilliant linguist and as the grieving mother, haunted by images of her deceased daughter’s childhood.
Jeremy Renner is equally as good as scientist Ian Donnelly, although his character is secondary to Adams’ Banks. The two also work well together and share some sexual chemistry which keeps the progression of the story believable.
The supporting cast is decent as well. I thought Michael Stuhlbarg was particularly good as CIA agent Halpern.
There’s been a resurgence of quality science fiction movies in recent years, and this is a good thing. You can go ahead and add ARRIVAL to that list. While not quite the grand slam that was Christopher Nolan’s INTERSTELLAR, it’s still an above average science fiction movie.
All in all, ARRIVAL is a satisfying science fiction tale about an encounter with an alien race that may or may not be trying to teach us something.