The timing of “Arrival” is rather fitting, seeing that it is a brainy, ambitious, and hopeful science fiction drama about breaking a seemingly unbreachable language barrier, hitting theaters just a scant few days after one of the most rancorous and divisive elections in the history of the United States. Will it heal a divided nation? Don’t be naive. Is it a damn fine and rewarding slice of brainy sci-fi? Yup.
Adapted for the screen by screenwriter Eric Heisserer from über-talented Ted Chiang’s novella Story of Your Life and directed Denis Villeneuve (Sicario), it’s built around a deceptively simple premise that yields a great deal of drama, tension, and captivating ideas: Twelve alien vessels simultaneously appear out of nowhere at separate places around the world, resulting in a host of nations attempting to establish first contact – each more or less on their own, as the sharing of information is kept minimal.
Linguistics professor Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and physicist Dr. Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) are recruited by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to decrypt the aliens’ language and ask one very important question: “What is your purpose on Earth?”. It may seem like a simple enough task, but trying to learn a language that you have no Rosetta Stone for and is expressed in vastly different form of ‘grammar’ proves to be a daunting challenge. Added to that is a ticking clock of sorts, as fear and paranoia picks up momentum around the world, and threatens to erupt into full-blown war.
Somehow, in the middle of all that, Heisserer and Villeneuve maintain a degree of universality that keeps the story grounded and us invested in it as it unspools via an appropriately non-linear structure. Ultimately, the movie rests almost entirely on Adams’ shoulders, and she carries its dramatic heft like a titan, conveying emotional fragility, personal loss, and an unwavering sense of wonder with astonishing subtlety and depth.
“Arrival” plays out like a less preachy, more introspective “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” and challenges us to look beyond to look beyond our single-minded worldviews in order to see a bigger picture, to understand ourselves and others, and to keep the lines of communication open. That can be difficult, but not necessarily impossible.