At the heart of so much science-fiction, fantasy, and horror is the question of whether there is anything other than humanity out there in the universe (or on Earth, or in other realms, or under our beds). It would be impossible to sit here and count every work of fiction that revolved around our first encounter with an alien life form…and yet, what so many of the works have in common is the difficulty we have of imagining something truly alien. It’s a limitation of our species; after all, if we’re filming it, it probably has to look something like us (it’s the Star Trek approach to much of alien life), and we can only create things that we can understand…you see the problem.
But Denis Villeneuve’s astonishing Arrival proves that it can be done, telling the story of a “First Contact” with something utterly incomprehensible. How do we communicate with a being that may not even be using words? How do we connect when our languages don’t even share a basic foundation of sounds and meanings? What if our math is utterly separate from theirs? That’s where Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer (working from a story by author Ted Chiang) place our protagonists, a linguist (Amy Adams) and a theoretical physicist (Jeremy Renner) who have been recruited by an Army colonel (Forest Whittaker) desperate to set up lines of communication before the world populace loses its mind in panic and fear.
That’s a heady premise, and it would be easy for Arrival to find a cheat or a workaround. But it doesn’t. Instead, the film commits to its idea, letting its characters work slowly and thoughtfully, solving the problems through their intellects and cooperation. It’s a film that celebrates intelligence, and that it does so calmly, carefully, and richly – that alone would be enough to make it an essential experience.
But really, that’s only half of the story of Arrival, which opens with Amy Adams’ linguist talking to her child, who we see born, grow, mature…and die, leaving behind a devastated Adams to pick up the pieces, all before the film really gets going or brings the alien arrival on stage. And with that opening, Arrival also becomes a film about grief, growth, and healing, an emotional core it never neglects. Instead, carefully, the film begins to tie those two halves together, doing so in such a way that the ultimate connection truly blindsided me, leaving me quietly devastated and moved. (It also makes it a film that can be difficult to write about; much of the joy of this film comes from watching it make progress and develop, to the point where I really think you should go in not knowing much more of the plot than I’ve given here.)
That, as much as anything, is what truly sets Arrival apart. Make no mistake: this is a remarkable piece of filmmaking, one that truly creates something utterly alien, uses its visuals to immerse us in something wholly new and unsettling, and paces itself perfectly, letting the intelligence of the characters set the pace. And yes, the story is gripping, showing just how much work the screenwriter, Villeneuve, and Chiang must have done before bringing this to the screen. But it’s that emotional core that truly makes Arrival special, revealing a sense of optimism, hope, and healing that can be hard to find in films anymore, to say nothing of the world at large. That it manages to convey that message while also telling a gripping, thought-provoking story that manages to both thrill and intrigue (and somehow fits in both linguistic theory and action sequences)…well, it’s an incredible achievement, and easily one of the best films of the year.