Arrival, the latest offering from French Canadian film director Denis Villanueve, steers far from the violent subject matter of his last, well-received movie, Sicario, which followed an FBI agent joining a harrowing fight against a Mexican drug cartel. In spite of the different storyline, he retains the highly intimate style that allows viewers to experience what his female protagonist sees and feels.
An unidentified spaceship has come to earth and is hovering just above the ground in Montana. Eleven others are doing the same in places around the world. No one knows why the spaceships have arrived, what their inhabitants want, or what they will do.
Louise Banks, played with intelligence and intensity by Amy Adams, is a linguist who is brought in to try to translate the language of the aliens. Every 18 hours, a door opens so that humans can enter the ship. It is up to Louise and Ian, a theoretical physicist, to try to make a connection with the extraterrestrials. Louise seems to have been living with loneliness and in some isolation. This opportunity sparks new life in her even as it drains her physically and emotionally.
This is no action-packed, sci-fi thriller but a thoughtful, deliberately paced work of sci-fi art. Not as bloated as Interstellar, not hinging on thrills the way Gravity does, it is both an argument for deeper connections with “other” and a celebration of the way language helps us do that. Think of it as Close Encounter of the Third Kind for grammar geeks.
Early in the story, the world is reacting with panic and threats of aggression. America is unsettled; riots and looting are breaking out in some cities. Watching the film three days after the U.S. election, I can only say this was a bit too close to reality and less of an escape than I wished!
However, as the film goes on, there is less focus on how society fears and unravels, and more exploration of what it might take to bring us toward more trust and cooperation. Saying much more would spoil the movie, so I have to leave it at that.
If you are looking for a thrill ride, this isn’t your movie. But if you are looking for something different that will give you food for thought and discussion, Arrival is a good destination. (Sony)