First contact gets a thoughtful, stimulating treatment in Denis Villeneuve’s fantastic 2016 film ‘Arrival’

December 23, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 23, 2017

Denis Villeneuve’s 2016 movie Arrival is a breathtakingly fresh tale of first contact with aliens. It’s also easily the most intelligent science fiction movie at least since Interstellar came out in 2014.

Arrival’s premise is simple enough. In the very near future, mysterious black objects position themselves over 12 apparently random locations scattered across the globe, inciting anxiety and panic. Every 18 hours, a panel on the bottom of the vessels — each resembles a skyscraper-sized contact lens — is opened, letting humans enter a chamber where they can have an audience with the aliens. Unfortunately, no one understands what they’re saying.

Linguistics professor Louise Banks is recruited to help the American military attempt to communicate with the extraterrestrials. She begins making sense of their language, which appears to be entirely visual, with some very minor assistance from a theoretical physicist named Ian Donnelly. However, her progress is increasingly hampered by visions from different parts of her life. Banks’s work becomes urgent when a Chinese general decides that the aliens are a threat and issues an ultimatum to them: Leave or face destruction.

To say much more about the plot would be to risk spoiling some of the movie’s most interesting revelations, but I’ll simply note that it has at least one element in common with Kurt Vonnegut’s classic novel Slaughterhouse-Five.

The feature is based on Ted Chiang’s 1998 novella “The Story of Your Life.” It was adapted to the screen by Eric Heisserer, who had previously written the 2011 prequel The Thing and the horror picture Lights Out, among other works.

The screenwriter and Villeneuve — the French-Canadian who helmed the drug thriller Sicario, the doppelgänger tale Enemy and this year’s Blade Runner 2049 — emphasize the difficulty their protagonist has feeling at ease anywhere but her home and with anyone but her child, Hannah. The military camp hastily erected in Montana might be entirely terrestrial, but the academic Banks finds it nearly as alien as the rocky black vessel hovering nearby.

Amy Adams (Lois Lane in Man of Steel) radiates intelligence and intensity as Banks, who (understandably) starts to hyperventilate when first confronted with the gravity-shifting vertical shaft in the alien transport. Jeremy Renner (Hawkeye in the Avengers movies) is fine in a modest role as Donnelly, but Michael Stuhlberg (A Serious Man and the TV series Boardwalk Empire) shines in an even smaller part as Halpern, a military intelligence agent who’s keenly aware of the fate which typically awaits societies that encounter more technologically advanced civilizations.

The best supporting actor of them all, however, is Forest Whitaker (seeming far leaner now than when he appeared last year in a bit role in Rogue One or as the lead in 2013’s The Butler). He plays Weber, the highly focused, mission-driven colonel who recruits Donnelly and Banks and supervises much of the activity at the ad hoc Montana military post. Whitaker’s performance quietly but effectively underlines the immense consequences that Banks’s work might have for life on Earth.

A major theme in Arrival is the challenge of communication, something that science-fiction movies frequently elide. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has the Babel fish and Star Trek has the universal translator; many other science fictions just assume that species from different corners of the universe will be able to understand each other instantly and easily. But Arrival also raises interesting questions about the nature of time and the cycle of life — childbirth, mating, death — that many people simply take for granted. It strikes some notes similar to those in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar and writer-director Terrence Malick’s 2011 opus Tree of Life.

In short, Arrival is a wonderful movie, and everyone who hasn’t seen it should make sure to do so.

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