As a woman with a Ph.D., I have a bit of a soft spot for stories in which the hero is another woman with a Ph.D. That admitted bias aside, Arrival offered a thought-provoking and emotional story about the challenges of communicating wrapped up in a sci-fi drama focused on the sudden arrival of an alien race.
In Arrival, Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is a leading translator and professor of linguistics. When a dozen spaceships land around the planet, bringing with them pairs of aliens, the United States Army, represented by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), calls on Dr. Banks to find a way to communicate with the aliens. The end goal is finding out why they have come to Earth, but to get there, she will first have to crack their written language. Dr. Banks works closely with Dr. Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a scientist trying to learn about the aliens’ technology. As she works to translate the alien language, Louise’s own mind starts to adapt to seeing the world the way the visitors do, unlocking important secrets for her own life and the future of the world.
In the plot of the film and the pairing of Louise and Ian, the film depicts a union of humanities and science to solve a problem, as well as the urgent need for attention to language in diplomacy. Along with the alien plotline, the film includes a story about Louise grieving the death of her daughter, Hannah. This story folds in an element about the hard to speak to way that emotion embeds in our language acquisition and comprehension. These themes made the film so timely and moving.
At times the story is rather cheesy, leaning hard on emotions that are compelling, if a little melodramatic. At other times, the pacing slogs along, spending too much time on basic points such as there not being any gravity inside the spaceship. Most of the film is a wonderful, slow-burning adventure, but these overwrought moments highlight the relative crawl of the plot.
Like Gravity, Arrival is a sci-fi film with a woman so thoroughly at its focus that I cannot remember a scene that did not include Louise. The centrality of Louise in the film makes Amy Adams’ performance crucial to the success of the story. Fortunately, she really delivers. The understated sweetness with which she plays Louise rounds out the intelligence and the confidence of the character, creating an interesting, complex portrait that helps bring to life the complex relationship between the sci-fi drama and the more personal elements of the story. Her chemistry with Jeremy Renner is not crucial to the story, but the pair does a good job of depicting a budding friendship and the mutual respect between the two characters in a way that comes across as organic and genuine.
The special effects in Arrival are passable, but they are also not the focus of the story. If you go to Arrival for explosions and cool aliens, you will be disappointed. Go watch Independence Day instead. In Arrival, the special effects serve the plot, but they are not the main show. Towards the end, as Dr. Banks takes some risks trying to solve a crisis, there is a sequence with some pretty bad CGI, but by that point, I was so invested in the movie, that I was able to brush that observation aside and stay engaged with the story unfolding.
Overall, Arrival provides a wonderful story with plenty of food for thought that made me both delighted by the discussions of language and moved by the insights about love and feeling. I rate it 4/5 stars.
Arrival was directed by Denis Villeneuve and written by Eric Heisserer, based on “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang. It runs 116 minutes and is rated PG-13 for brief strong language.
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