Amy Adams has another strong 2016 entry in this alien invasion movie. Based on Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life”, Arrival feels like a combination of Signs and Momento with a twist that’s both inspiring and tragic.
Twelve mysterious spacecraft touchdown at different points all over the world, sending mankind into a state of panic. The aliens are not aggressive and allow people to enter their ships in order to try to communicate, but they cannot understand each other. Each of the world’s governments takes steps to try to understand what the alien’s purpose is on Earth. The American forces, led by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) reach out to linguistics professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams). Louise has worked with the intelligence agencies as a translator before and now Weber wants her to translate the language of the aliens. He brings her in as a lead on a team being managed by physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner). It’s a gargantuan task, to be sure, but Louise and Ian try to solve the problem by applying a structured approach to the concepts of communication and language.
Louise and Ian make regular trips inside the alien ship. The meetings are done with a large pane of glass-like material between the humans and the aliens. This leaves the aliens inside of a foggy/murky atmosphere that other scientists have surmised is unfavorable to humans. At first, they’re overcome by shock when they first encounter the aliens, who appear to be some kind of giant, seven-tentacled creatures with no faces. After they get over the initial shock, they go through a series of steps to try to establish communication with the aliens, whom they dub “Abbott and Costello”. While trying to learn the alien’s language the scientists start to learn things about the aliens, like the fact that they perceive time differently. Working around the clock, Louise also starts to suffer from hallucinations of her dead daughter and life with her estranged husband. As teams all over the world work together to establish some kind of communication with the aliens, now known as “heptapods”. They are able to slowly start communicating using the heptapod’s written language, but the US government is pushing for faster progress.
While the scientists are working, the world at large is going into a panic. There are riots in the streets as the general public fears the worst from the alien’s arrival. None of the world’s governments are sharing much information with the public. Not that there’s a lot of information to share early on. That changes when several countries, including the U.S. and China, get the cryptic message that the aliens have come to give humanity a weapon. At that point, the heptapods disperse a huge amount of writing that Louise and Ian fear will take years to decipher. The Chinese, led by General Shang (Tzi Ma) treat this as an act of war, causing other countries to follow suit. They offer the aliens an ultimatum: leave or be destroyed. The U.S. is preparing to do the same, despite the fact that Louise and Ian are urging them to be patient. After listening to too many political pundits, some of the soldiers at the ship site get the idea to try to kill the aliens. They set an explosive trap that goes off while Louise and Ian are rushing to try to communicate with the aliens, but the heptapods push them out of the ship right before the explosion goes off. Even so, the world’s governments are now sure that the heptapods will retaliate after the act of aggression.
After the attack, the heptapod ships do move off of the ground. Desperate to make a final appeal to them, Louise goes to see them alone and is offered a pod to come aboard the ship. She goes directly into the heptapod’s fog to see Abbott and Costello. Costello reveals that Abbott was killed in the attack and that the reason for their arrival was to give humanity a weapon because they would need humanity’s help in 3,000 years. Louise begins to realize that the weapon is the heptapod’s language itself. She gets back to the base to find that she can, in fact, read their writing naturally. She also realizes that, in reading their language, she’s learned to think like them. She can perceive events outside of time. She also realizes (and so does the audience) that the “memories” she’s been having of her daughter are memories of events that haven’t happened yet. Using this new found ability, she is able to contact General Shang and stop him from attacking the alien ships, preventing a catastrophe. Louise can now see what the future holds for her, and is left to figure out how to navigate her life and the “weapon” that she’s been given while knowing how things will play out.
What did I think?
The revelation that the events that were assumed “flashbacks” in this movie were actually premonitions was a gut punch. Not so much because I cared for the character, but because I could immediately sympathized with the idea of living your life knowing what kind of tragedies would befall you. Realizing that the entire movie was being shown from Louise’s perspective as her mind had already fallen out of time, turns the entire thing on it’s head. It goes from feeling like a movie that may have been somewhat disjointed and too dependent on cutaways, to something that was purposefully constructed to try to let the audience experience something along with the characters.
As good as it was, it isn’t perfectly done. There are a lot of the parts of the experience that aren’t very well explained. One of the big ones is how Louise is experiencing the moment in the present when she calls General Shang and the moment in the future where he tells her what to say for the first time. It’s one of those moments where you get the idea of what’s happening, but trying to concretely figure out the how’s and why’s of what you’re seeing is an exercise in frustration. There’s also an unexpected shift in the conflict of the movie when it hits the final act. When Louise realizes that she’s seeing the future, the movie becomes completely about her experience and loses it’s global sense. That’s not necessarily bad, but it does start to make you feel like you’ve been paying attention to the wrong part of the story for most of the movie.
I was really disappointed by the design of the heptapods. They are essentially just big walking hands with a few extra fingers and ink shooting squids for finger tips. The alien writing was cool and, I suspect, that there were several linguists consulting on the design of the “language” but that just made the ultimate reveal of the alien bodies’ more disappointing. They are really a plot device more than characters. We don’t find out anything about them or the reason for their mission on Earth outside of the fact that they’re in trouble and they need humanity (and Louise’s) help.
The aliens weren’t the only visually disappointing part of this movie’s visuals. A lot of effort went into creating some great exterior shots and landscapes in the movie, but it felt like those and certain shots of the aliens, were the only places that got that kind of attention. While shrouding the aliens in fog for most of the movie, did allow them to be mysterious, it also allowed them to not have to be shown in full for most of the film. There were also Louise’s visions, which were often disorienting or hard to see through because of the way they were shot. None of these things were awful, but it just felt like they could’ve been done better based on some of the movie’s other visuals.
Like she does in Nocturnal Animals it feels like Amy Adams spends a lot of time trying to carry the movie by silently representing ideas through intense facial expression under a close up lens. Don’t get me wrong, Adams is pretty good at doing this. Objectively, I don’t think that I would find watching someone who’s just “thinking about things”, very interesting. That being said, I found her performance entertaining and fitting for the movie. So, she must be doing something right.
It’s also worth mentioning that this is another great movie for people looking for a strong female lead who’s not necessarily bogged down by sexuality or romance. The character of Louise is very human but extremely intelligent and strong.
In contrast Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker, who are both strong actors feel very underused in this movie. Their characters are fairly one note and exist only as much as they need to to further the story of Louise. Although, Whitaker does feel like he does more here than he does in Rogue One.
Despite Adam’s strong performance and an interesting plot twist, I suspect that this movie will get a mixed response from a general audience. For some, it may feel too disjointed and confusing. For others, it can be a refreshing and thoughtful twist on the “first contact” genre of movies. I find myself falling into the later group.
- The mechanic of the alien language and how it changes the character's and viewers is an inspired idea and very well executed. It also adds some rewatch value
- The pacing and drama in this movie is well done. It never feels like there's a slow or wasted moment
- Amy Adams gives another master class in acting through close ups of reactionary
- The nature of the story telling mechanism can make some things hard to follow
- Ultimately, there is a big unresolved part of the story