I suppose it is the job of a serious science fiction story to use the setting of a beyond-human-experience to say something intrinsic about being human. “Arrival” fits right into this framework. It’s a story of the first human interaction with an alien species, and the heart of it is all about the human heart. To say much more than that will give things away, but let’s deal with the sci-fi trappings, of which there is much to be said.
First it’s “serious” in the way 2001: A Space Odyssey, or more recently, Interstellar, were serious. There’s no whiff of the humour or matinee flavour of a Star Wars or a Guardians of the Galaxy. Director Denis Villeneuve presents a thoughtful and reflective piece. The camera takes its time presenting the tableau. The music is slow and darkly emotional. And the actors present realistic and compelling performances. The film builds its tension quietly but effectively and it draws you in, so that you genuinely wonder where it will take you. And it leaves you with the question: how would we would react if presented with alien life?
Amy Adams plays the central character, Dr Louise Banks, a language and translation specialist who’s brought in to try and understand why the aliens have arrived and what their purpose is. Jeremy Renner is Ian Donnelly, a science guru who becomes her sidekick of sorts. And Forest Whitaker is Colonel Weber, the military chief who tries to corral the pair.
And as we follow Adams’ attempts to understand the aliens, other experts in other nations are doing the same, for a dozen alien craft have landed in various parts of the world. Inevitably suspicion and fear arise, threatening to turn a civilized attempt at communication into a war. All this sets up the dramatic arc of the film, but something else is happening too. Throughout, we see scenes of Louise dealing with a family tragedy. And somehow, as the film unfolds, this tragedy seems connected to her work with the aliens. The final twist in the story is a bit of a stretch to accept, and some may find it so implausible and so full of pathos as to ruin the film. But you could quite legitimately be drawn into the denouement, and hail the story as exceptional.
For what it’s worth, I wanted to buy into the ending, because I felt I was watching a quality science fiction film, well directed and well acted and deserving of praise. But I have to say the ending, while certainly offering surprise, didn’t quite sit with me.
That said, there is much to enjoy here. Adams carries the film and does so with a great deal of intelligence and class. It’s nice to see Renner in a role that isn’t a superhero/action man role by the numbers, and Forrest Whittaker exudes his usual air of integrity. So, go see Arrival, especially if you are in a need of a rest from the frenetic pace of recent superhero/fantasy fare and want to sit back and absorb a more thoughtful piece of entertainment. And let us know what you think of the ending.