At their best, science fiction stories can offer both a poignant reflection of the problems of our world as well as an awe-inspiring escape from it. And after the week this planet has had so far, you can’t blame anyone looking for little distraction, whether it’s through animal videos or movie theatres. Which has Arrival coming at just the right time.
The latest from French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, it stars Amy Adams as a linguistics professor enlisted as a literal universal translator when 12 massive alien spaceships touch down across the globe, with no readily apparent reason as to why they’re here, or what they want. And it’s up to her and a fellow scientist (Jeremy Renner) to get the answers to those questions, before someone with an itchy trigger finger turns their Independence Day fears into a self-fulfilling prophecy. (And yes, that’s somehow still less stressful than the stories currently playing out on the news…)
Sci-fi movies don’t typically score points for “realism,” but there’s something almost documentary-like about the way Villeneuve rolls out the aliens’ titular arrival, first introducing it not in some government war room, but on a college campus, via buzzing text alerts and groups of stunned students huddled around TVs. From there, the movie walks us through every procedural next step with clinical efficiency — from Adams’ Dr. Louise Banks being recruited by army intelligence to getting her credentials and booster shots before their first contact. There’s no rushing to get to the big money shot. When Renner’s character asks his military escort what the aliens look like, the response (to him, and by extension, us) is a simple “You’ll see soon enough.”
That’s partly by necessity, of course — Arrival cost only $50 million to make, over three times less than 2014’s Interstellar and two times less than last year’s The Martian. So Villeneuve doles out his CGI budget wisely, keeping his aliens — floating squid-like creatures they term “heptapods” — mostly shrouded in mist. And unlike those other recent sci-fi dramas, Arrival doesn’t need to travel to far-flung planets to dazzle, staying firmly rooted here on Earth. There are no screensaver-worthy vistas of the Milky Way. There’s precisely one explosion.
And that limited scope is actually one of the film’s greatest strengths. If Interstellar was Nolan’s attempt at making a 21st Century 2001, Arrival is the 2016 version of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a movie more about what our response to first contact can tell us about humanity than about its extraterrestrials. A sign of intelligent life in a genre usually dominated by shock and awe spectacle. The plot isn’t a race to figure out how to stop the aliens; it’s a race to see whether mankind can keep its self-destructive tendencies at bay long enough to figure out why they’re here in the first place.
Just think about that for a second — this is a movie where the hero isn’t some squared-jawed astronaut. Or a decorated Air Force pilot. Or even a brilliant NASA engineer. She’s a linguist. That is not exactly what you’d call a “glamour profession” (no offence, guys). And yet, Arrival somehow manages to be more thrilling and tense than most of the swashbuckling space operas in recent memory.
Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score helps, its atonal swelling lending a moody apprehension to what would otherwise be your typical “look up in awe at something off-screen” reaction shots. But the real star here is Eric Heisserer’s script. Adapted from an award-winning short story by Ted Chiang, like most good sci-fi, it uses the alien arrival conceit to explore something larger. The potential messiness of language and communication, but also how the way we speak affects the way we think, and how we process reality. That’s heady stuff. (Or at least a lot headier than Interstellar taking almost three hours to get to its “love is the key!” big reveal.) And without giving too much away, Arrival’s themes and its structure tie together in a truly fascinating way. It’s the rare instance where a late plot turn actually deepens the drama that came before it, instead of selling it out for some half-baked “gotcha!” twist.
Like the best science fiction, Arrival asks us to turn our heads to the sky, before bringing us back down to the real challenges here on Earth. And yes, the idea of mankind successfully learning how to communicate and cooperate with one another might seem like a more pie-in-the-sky concept than UFOs piloted by alien squids right about now. But if you’re in need of (yet) another reminder that isolationism isn’t the answer to global-scale problems after this week, Arrival showed up at the perfect moment.