By: Cassie Maz
Movie Review: Arrival (2016)
Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremey Renner, Forest Whitaker
Arrival centers around linguist Louise Banks, portrayed by Amy Adams, who has been hired by the US government to attempt to communicate with one of the twelve mysterious alien vessels that have landed across Earth. An interesting premise, Villeneuve’s film combines many classic elements that have already appeared in movies of the recently and increasingly popular sci-fi genre: strange “others” who appear to have agency in the universe, aliens with unknown, perhaps ill, intent, governments withholding information from the public, foreign technology that manipulates the laws of physics, etc. However, Arrival has little to no action, making the audience’s journey a mental one.
The film draws you in with innate curiosity—what are they here for? When 12 alien ships loom in the sky, it’s easy to assume the worst—human harvesting, hostile takeover, annihilation, take your pick—and the film perfectly portrays the rising chaotic fear fueled by media coverage. Curiously though, the audience does not become a member of the paranoid masses. Rather, the audience follows Banks as she races to understand the aliens’ true intentions before war breaks out, not between humanity and its new visitors, but among ourselves.
Villeneuve’s more unique take on the sci-fi trope of alien invasion creates a more personal journey of understanding. The opening scene, without a single mention of alien invasion, follows Louise Banks’ brief time with her daughter Hannah before she dies prematurely of cancer. At first appearing as nothing more than superficial exposition meant to make you sympathize with the main character, this scene and other memories come back to haunt Banks in what appear to be the result of post-traumatic stress.
Ultimately, the film’s primary focus is on the discovery of the new arrivals’ intentions through written communication. Somehow, through scientific analysis beyond my comprehension, Banks and her partner, physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), manage to translate the aliens’ circular splatter, reminiscent of the swirling spin art kids bring home from camp, into a comprehensible language.
This alien language is reflective of the theme the movie attempts to communicate to the audience. The concept of the circle, having neither beginning nor end, is central to the “big reveal” in the last portion of the film. The aliens don’t write sentences in straight lines, but circles; Hannah’s name is a palindrome; time doesn’t necessarily move from point A to point B. To reveal more would be to spoil the revelation that Villeneuve saves for the end of the film, but this revelation was, more than anything, just plain confusing. I suppose that’s the point—as humans living in the 3rd dimension, manipulation of the 4th dimension is incomprehensible, creating time paradoxes that, in our unenlightened minds, are unreconcilable. The end of the movie was very reminiscent of Nolan’s Interstellar, revealing some great cosmic link between love and time. However, concerning this mind-blowing reveal, my only thought when I left the theater was, “Huh, well that’s interesting.” I left more curious about Dr. Banks’ life in relation to this reveal, curious to discover more about her experiences following her close encounter. If anything, that speaks to Amy Adam’s beyond successful portrayal of the film’s main character. Arrival is an attempt at cosmic revelation, slowly yet engagingly leading the audience to a big reveal that, for me, fell flat. Rather, the film succeeded at investing me with the personal implications this truth had for Banks. In a movie about the otherworldly, Villeneuve and Adams kept the audience grounded in very human conflicts.