“Arrival” Movie Review: A New First Contact Classic

“This is just a way to force us to work together for once.” -Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams)

“Arrival” is an intelligent and philosophical piece of science fiction that beautifully blends realism with a sense of awe.

Directed by Denis Villeneuve, who is well-known for “Sicario” and “Prisoners,” the film centers around linguistics expert Dr. Louise Banks, who leads a team of investigators when twelve massive spaceships touch down in various locations around the world. Dr. Banks and her team must race against time to find a way to communicate with these extraterrestrial visitors as the world teeters on the verge of global war.

What makes this film so successful is that it veers away from the typical “Independence Day” alien invasion movie. There is only one explosion in this movie, and it is seen in the trailer. A great chunk of this movie is Dr. Banks’ team trying to make contact with the aliens, trying to understand their language and trying to communicate in a diplomatic fashion. It brought a level of realism that I appreciated and did not see in other first contact films.

The film’s perception of how aliens would appear and how they would act greatly adds to the level of realism that the film already has. Humans have this belief that if aliens did make contact, then they would be bipedal and have similarities to the human form: two arms, one head, two eyes, one nose, and ten fingers and ten toes. In reality, this concept would probably not be true. I give props to the screenwriter Eric Heisserer and director Villeneuve for understanding that humans look the way we do because we live on Earth. The film respected that, in reality, aliens would be completely different, from their appearance to their language.

When Dr. Banks is trying to communicate with these aliens, it is not the same experience as learning Spanish, French, or even Chinese. When the aliens speak, it sounds like wild snarls, nothing like our “articulate” human ways of speech. However, they discover that it is possible to communicate with the aliens using their complex, written language. It adds to the intrigue and forces the audience to stay focused and think about the complexity of this circular language.

The language barrier is also the source of tension in the film, for, Dr. Banks says, “Language is messy.” Because humans cannot immediately communicate with these “trespassers,” movie-goers will see first-hand that when faced with a potentially dangerous situation, it is humanity’s instinct to blow things out of the sky first and ask questions later.

Amy Adams gives a fantastic performance in this film. You really see how Dr. Banks struggles with making contact with the aliens. You can feel her suffocating under the stress of making first contact and successfully communicating their intensions, under the surveillance of those who would rather use force. It shows that, in reality, meeting beings that challenge your standing in the universe is a traumatic experience. It is not something that people can be nonchalant about. I agree that Amy Adams could, in fact, earn herself an Oscar with this film.

Jeremy Renner, who plays Ian Donnelly, did his part well as Dr. Banks’ partner in this investigation. Ian Donnelly is the casual guy whose mathematical intellect complements Dr. Banks’ linguistic expertise. He is not just an afterthought, for he makes intellectual contributions during the investigation and is a part of the mystery that surrounds Dr. Banks.

This is not a complaint, but I will warn those who want to watch the film that it takes its time to tell this story. The first time the team goes up into the spaceship to communicate, they do not make much progress. This sequence is repeated throughout the movie. Do not walk into this movie expecting a fast-paced science fiction film with general science fiction explosions taking a page from the new “Independence Day” movie. This movie might be a bit slow for people who just saw “Doctor Strange.”

But what this movie did well was that it is exactly what it pitched in its trailer. This is a movie that will earn fans, those who walked in not expecting an intellectual and philosophical piece with science fiction. This movie will also earn haters, those who came in with “Independence Day” or “Aliens” expectations and were disappointed. Walking out of the movie theater, I was enlightened and satisfied, unlike one guy who claimed that it was “slow and disappointing.”

“Arrival” is not an alien invasion movie. It is a story about humanity…but with aliens coming to Earth as a means to tell the story. The aliens are used in a way to test human nature when faced with a situation that tests humanity’s boundaries and its ability to unite and work together for a goal that is much bigger than their prejudices against one another.

The mirror of humanity and blend of realism and surrealism makes “Arrival” one of the most intriguing films of the year. Its science fiction and philosophical reasoning implore audiences to actually open up their minds and think about the possibility of realistic alien contact and the intellectual decisions that must be made for the sake of not only humankind but also our unexpected guests.

I will say that “Arrival” is a spectacular film that I recommend to see this year.

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