Arrival is one of those films that are audacious enough to stick to the idea and not be over-eager to deliver a spectacle. Deliver it does, but the feat is more cerebral, and inclines towards but doesn't indulge in visual achievements. It has alien spaceships, world powers gearing up for war against these interstellar intruders, military colonels contemplating the consequences of war against a superior species, political and civil unrest, and scientists deciphering the alien communications using cutting-edge technology, but all these just surround the film's central human element and thankfully do not cloud it.
The film is a thematic successor of similar movies like Robert Zemecki's brilliant Contact and Tarkovsky's meditative space epic Solaris. Like Solaris, Arrival penetrates into the human psyche as much as it explores the intriguing possibilities of otherworldly existences. Like Contact, it zooms in on a very emotional and personal human story through a grand-scale scientific extrapolation of ideas. Nolan's Interstellar
pulled a similar feat, trying to intertwine the scientific and the visceral, validating one through the other. Though Hathway's speech in that one took it too far, the film was considerably successful in its attempt. Arrival continues this interesting trend of populating complex scientific ideas with deeply emotional undercurrents.
Arrival shows giant alien spacecrafts suddenly appearing at 12 places on Earth, pushing governments into anxiety and people into chaos. Unrest grows as the world is both intimidated and repulsed by the sudden intrusion. Meanwhile US Army Colonel G T Weber (Forest Whitaker) tries to decipher the alien communications that sound like whale noises. He seeks the help of Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguistics expert who helped him once in translating some Farsi videos.
It's not going to be that straightforward this time obviously because Louise couldn't possibly be an expert on alien languages, but she checks out the spacecrafts anyway. They are unflattering in their design, but intimidating in their size - they are like giant watermelon seeds, hovering vertically above the ground. Perhaps this is an homage to the black monoliths in Kubrick's masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey, whose purpose is similar - to mysteriously appear and push humanity to the next level. Anyway, Louise joins a team that includes a theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), and they venture to find out what the aliens' business is here.
The film employs language and linguistics both as a theme and a plot device. Much of the film's time is dedicated to the interactions between humans and the aliens, as they initially struggle to find a common ground in beginning to understand each other. Louise says that while our language is just an expression of sound, theirs is more resonant with meaning and hence more efficient. The aliens later understand that to communicate using their whale-like sounds is futile, and reciprocate to Louise's visual communication. They emit a kind of black smoke and form symbols in air, and from then on, the communications witness a breakthrough.
The film contemplates our conception of time, and proposes that time, unlike what we believe, is not exactly linear. Physicists say that though we experience time as a forward-arrow that is unidirectional, it is merely our subjection, and time by itself doesn't travel only forward. Talking more about this key element of the film is not possible without spoiling the movie, and so I refrain from that.
Eric Heisserer's screenplay spirals upon itself, like the film's conception of time. The last time this was so convincingly pulled off was in Nolan's Memento. Arrival questions and wonders about time and memories, and plunges subtly into complex ethical conundrums, and that makes this an apt approach. Denis Villeneuve lets the film pace on its own terms, and employs atmospheric visuals to draw you into the enigma. The slow pace of the proceedings is deliberate - to allow you to ponder over and perhaps wonder about the questions it tackles. This is evident from how it intends its payoff not as a stunt but just as a revelation.
It is impossible not to admire Bradford Young's masterful cinematography that completely fuses into the film's themes of contemplation, uncertainty and eventually redemption. He draws a thin line between gloomy and moody, and lights his interiors with incredible accuracy. The slow pans and fluid gliding of the camera hint at the reassurance the film ultimately delivers. The same can be said about Johan Johannsson's soundtrack that underlines mystery and amplifies emotion.
Arrival is an engaging experience. While the plot might raise many logical questions, it never lets its focus be diverted from the questions it wants you to ask. If not for anything else, this film is a must-watch at least for Amy Adams' terrific performance.