"Arrival" (2016) is a science-fiction movie that is at once devastating and uplifting, and conveys both the terror and the unblinking fascination that would likely overwhelm the first humans to make contact with an alien race.
First-contact scenarios are a well-trod starting point for science-fiction stories, but one that can still lead down new alleyways. In "Arrival," a dozen large, smooth, stone-like ships appear in the sky at 12 random locations around the world, and it's not immediately clear where they're from or why they're here. Language expert Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is called in to try to communicate with the aliens on one of the ships.
The movie's tone, pacing and cinematography are frequently subdued, and at times even somber. But by the end, "Arrival" has also traversed pure excitement and joy. The emotional journey of the movie's central character drives the film just as much as the plot, both of which are fascinating to see unfold. While some space-movie lovers may wish for more spaceships or alien technology, "Arrival" is a true science-fiction tale, and one that is told with great care by an extremely capable filmmaker (Denis Villeneuve). [Strange Cinema: Space.com's Favorite Off-Beat Space Movies]
During the movie's first act, space fans get to see some cool spaceships (and a few cool ship tricks), although for the most part these stone eggs are defined by their minimalism. The audience also learn's Banks' back story, which I won't say much about, but suffice it to say, it's tragic.
"Arrival" also shows us the aliens fairly early on. That's a move some science-fiction movies put off as long as they can. Choosing what an alien race will look like in a movie is always tough for filmmakers. Sometimes the goal is just to have fun with the biological possibilities, other times it's to make the aliens seem "real."
But in more literary works, aliens reflect some aspect of the story. That's the case in "Arrival": the aliens are separated from the humans by a glass barrier, in a room filled with opaque white smoke. This physical separation remains in place during the film's second act, as Banks tries to navigate through the fog of interspecies communication. It's possible these beings have a language so wildly different from those found on Earth that she will never be able to understand it.
As the story progresses, viewers get to see Banks and a team of scientists go through the process of learning an alien language. This exercise is presented as extremely scientific (one skeptical physicist reluctantly notes that Banks approaches language like a mathematician). I give this movie a relatively high grade for the realistic depiction of scientists and how they work. Watching the scientists learn to talk to this new species is really fun; I even loved hearing the linguistic terms for the characteristics that define the aliens' method of communication. This section is also engrossing because the audience desperately wants the team to be able to ask the million-dollar question: What is your purpose on Earth?
Until the aliens can answer that question through language, the humans have little to no idea what the visitors' intentions are. The aliens' physical presence can be interpreted as menacing or as beautiful, and sometimes it shifts fluidly between those two. While Banks works, military personnel linger in the background, unsure if the visitors are hostile or peaceful. In the face of that uncertainty, Banks is both fearful and fragile, but also curious enough to find the strength and resolve to continue. (Adams does a great job juggling and conveying those emotions.)
The movie's last act follows in the footsteps of many great science-fiction stories by using an extraordinary scenario to pose a theoretical question. In this case, it's about life and loss. So much of the fun of this movie is trying to figure out what's going on, and then watching the pieces fall into place, so I'd rather not say anything about this section of the movie. I will note that hard-core science-fiction fans should be warned that the movie concludes on a note that is more philosophical than technical or scientific.
"Arrival" is based on a short story called "The Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang. I haven't read it, but from what I hear, the movie does a good job at preserving much of the plot and the themes of the story.
How can an experience be both subdued and invigorating, both terrifying and utterly fascinating? How can a person be simultaneously fragile and strong? Maybe it takes a new way of communicating in order to see that these diverse states exist together on the same loop. Things that might seem like they belong at opposite ends of a spectrum become points on a circle; we pass through one on our way toward the other, until we start the journey over again.