“There are days that define your story beyond your life. Like the day they arrived…”
The problem is that this starts out with the kind of story we’ve seen a thousand times before. The alien invasion theme is nothing new. H.G. Wells was describing it back in the 19th Century with War Of The Worlds. Unrelated Orson Welles scared the crap out of a depression-era radio audience with the same story. Independence Day gave us a brilliantly visual story that also begins the same way: alien ships begin to take strategic positions around the world. Here we go again, right? Wrong. We should have guessed from the beginning that when director Denis Villeneuve tackles a genre, he’s going to turn it on his head. We’d seen him do it before. Last year’s Sicario gave us a “war on drugs” film that wasn’t like anything that came before it. Prisoners could have looked like a Taken sequel. I mean, how many ways can a tough guy deal with a kidnapped daughter? Of course, Villeneuve showed us there was at least one more way. He does it again with an alien first-contact film that is a blend of The Day The Earth Stood Still, 2001 A Space Odyssey, and maybe a little bit of the Twilight Zone classic To Serve Man, without the special sauce recipe. But mostly it’s a cerebral journey that mines much of the same ground that Christopher Nolan did with Interstellar. Except that Villeneuve did a better job. Oh, and he spent $120 million less to do it. You still might be scratching your head when you leave, but you will also have some wonderful themes to ponder on the drive home. Arrival might well be one of the best films I’ll see in 2016.
Twelve alien ships appear around the globe, and no one is quite sure what to make of their choreographed arrival. Each nation dispatches their own blend of scientific and military expeditions to try to discover the aliens’ intent. For the United States, that job falls to Colonel Weber (Whitaker). He solicits the help of linguistics expert Dr. Louise Banks (Adams) and math genius Dr. Ian Donnelly (Renner) to help communicate with the arrivals. Every 18 hours a hatch opens that allows the team to visit the aliens for a short period of time. Each visit is a puzzle piece to understanding the language and even the psychology of the visitors. Of course, the military is getting restless, and Agent Hapern (Stuhlbarg) is willing to nuke them in a first strike rather than be taken by surprise. That is, unless their intentions can be proven to his satisfaction as peaceful. Of course, it’s never that simple, as even the smallest nuance can change the entire meaning of a message. The aliens are an octopod kind of creature called Heptapods and communicate via an inky substance released from an appendage in the form of a circle.
I love that the film is less about the aliens themselves than it is about the journey of the Amy Adams character and the tiniest subtleties of communication. I was a teacher and often admonished my students that communication is not the message we send, but rather the one received. I wish I could have used this film as an example. The film also isn’t about the f/x. There are some extraordinary visuals here, to be sure. But Villeneuve offers a sense of realism that sucks you into this world enough that you won’t be thinking of the f/x. The ship design is simple and looks like a hybrid of the 2001 monolith and the whale probe from Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. It’s basically a black half-ellipse. The aliens are quite convincing, and it’s smart that you always see them shrouded in a bit of a mist (likely an alien atmosphere) and behind a clear barrier. You won’t get the kind of shock close-up detail that is often the norm. Remarkably, seeing slightly less feels more authentic. Most important is the incredible atmosphere the film immerses you with. This is really the kind of “look” that I think Cloverfield was trying to achieve. The budget here is small, but these guys got a lot of bang for a few bucks. This kind of thing makes you question where all of that hundreds of millions of dollars might be going in the typical summer/Christmas anchor film.
I won’t even hint at the ending. That would be a disservice to both film and audience. There is a non-linear aspect of the film that I’ll admit drove me a bit crazy until the end. I saw it coming, but it still clicked and brought it all literally full-circle for me. It’s the kind of film that I suspect is better the second time around. There’s a lot to take in, and there’s a ton of symbolism and metaphor here. Again, it’s not truly appreciated until the end. A few years ago I was surprised by an Australian independent film called The Rover. It’s a film that only makes complete sense in the final minute, but when you see that you start to understand tons of subtle references that you simply couldn’t appreciate at the time. I love when you can see it coming, but it surprises you anyway. Don’t understand. “You’ll see soon enough.”