Arts, Movies

Originality Propels ‘Arrival’ Aliens to Fulfilling Narrative Ends


On screen, 12 mysterious black ships suddenly materialize at different places across the world. Col. Weber (Forest Whitaker) and a few soldiers arrive at acclaimed linguist Louise Banks’s (Amy Adams) doorstep to bring her to speak with the aliens. The aliens, large cephalopod-like creatures, nicknamed heptapods due to their seven appendages, can speak, but not in any language that humanity can understand. Banks, along with Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), regularly meets with the aliens at the ship that appeared in U.S. airspace in an attempt to establish communication.

Directed by Denis Villeneuve, the mind behind Prisoners and Sicario, Arrival is this Oscar season’s best sci-fi movie so far, even though science fiction isn’t a category in the Academy Awards. In a cinematic wasteland full of sequels, prequels, remakes, and reboots, Arrival is one of the few truly good movies this year. It shows that Hollywood is still capable of producing original content, or at least content based on original stories. Movies that make audiences think and ask them interesting questions are few and far between these days. If aliens were to arrive on Earth, could we communicate with them meaningfully? If they arrived in multiple countries, how long would it take before governments decided to blow them out of the sky? Could humanity work together long enough to figure it all out?

Arrival tries, and succeeds, at answering these questions within its own universe. Banks and Donnelly work with the two heptapods on the U.S. ship to form a system of communication. In one of the most incredible scenes in Arrival, Banks manages to get the aliens, affectionately nicknamed Abbot and Costello, to “write.” Heptapods do not write like any known written language on Earth. They convey large ideas, like sentences and paragraphs, with large circular symbols made from the black material they can exude from their feet. The heptapods also have a very different concept of time. Their words do not have tenses. Instead they speak in terms of large feelings and impressions. Banks breaches this language barrier by using a device not previously seen in any science fiction movie to date: a dry-erase board. While the tools may be rudimentary, they constitute a major breakthrough. The wonder and relief that Banks and Donnelly express are palpable.

In response to the other questions, one of the major obstacles Arrival sets for its characters is bureaucracy. Col. Weber is constantly asking Banks to work faster, to try to ask the heptapods the “big” question, “What is your purpose on Earth?” His position is very sympathetic, however. He must report to the generals, the Defense Department, and the President. Dr. Banks, and the audience, would obviously choose to spend as much time as possible learning with the aliens, but the government demands answers. If none come, it will take any action necessary to eliminate the threat. Arrival also shows the media frenzy that would undoubtedly result from such an occurrence. The movie provides an incredibly realistic and believable glimpse into the way Earth might react to an alien “invasion.”

Adams gives a stellar performance as Banks. Her character has a very emotional experience throughout the movie, and Adams expresses this very well. Renner and Whitaker both do a very good job in supporting roles.

The visuals in Arrival are stunning. Every shot is bright and vibrant without being overwhelming. The movie shows the action on screen clearly and without interruption. Too often, alien movies suffer from too much or too little of the actual aliens. Arrival holds just enough back, leaving the audience wanting more of the heptapods. What truly drives Arrival, however, is its story. The acting and visuals only serve to complement this fascinating plot. The film is like an iceberg: any knowledge of the movie gleaned from trailers is only surface level. Arrival is a welcome and fresh experience after a year of tiresome, unoriginal films. Fans of science fiction will love this movie, but they will definitely not be the only ones arriving at the theater.

Featured Image By Paramount Pictures

November 14, 2016