As far as repeated film plots go first contact with alien life has to be in the top 10. Close Encounters of the third kind, E.T., Independence Day, Alien, Signs I could go on and on. When you break it down to it’s most simple they tend to be very similar both in content and look. Arrival is the most creative and innovative alien arrival film that I can remember. The film follows Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguistics professor who if recruited by the military to decipher the language of an alien species who’ve landed on earth in 12 different ships scattered across the globe. Showing no signs of threat the alien ships simply sit there, allowing Dr. Banks, Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) a theoretical physicist, and a support team of military personnel board their ships and attempt to communicate. What starts as an exciting challenge of learning to communicate with the beings turns into a race against time to decipher what the aliens true purpose is before the other countries, mostly Russia and China, get jumpy and start an intergalactic war.
Reinventing the wheel, that’s the best way to describe this film. Though it’s not just reinvention, it’s reinvention with improvement. Every aspect of this film exudes a creativity and willingness to throw out expectation that is incredibly refreshing given the norm in cinema today. It manages to deliver something that changes the way we think not just about alien films but about sci-fi as a whole. Before this turns into 500 words of gushing let’s break down what exactly makes this a film worth gushing over. The story as a whole works on multiple levels. Even without it’s best ingredient, the films third act twist, it remains a solid and entertaining film. They manage to turn something that, on paper, seems far too boring to be made into a movie…the struggle to understand an alien language and turns it into a captivating process that brings the feelings one may experience watching a mystery unfold. I don’t know how true any of the philosophy behind language rings but it’s written in a way that makes you believe what they’re feeding you. Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner take a backseat to the story itself but perform their duties excellently, effortlessly flowing natural chemistry in their scenes together. Forest Whitaker is, well, Forest Whitaker. That’s a compliment. He’s simply a perfect fit in the role of Colonel Weber, the man who recruits Banks and is their military liaison while at the alien site.
The real star of the show is the effects team…of maybe it’s the set designers, that shows how great of a job was done…it’s extremely hard to tell where CGI starts and practical effects end. Imagination is a word I’m going to overuse in this review, I’ve come to piece with that. The sheer imagination on display in every aspect of the alien interaction scenes is astounding, I’m sure there were plenty of influences but I couldn’t recall any, it all seems so fresh. The geologic nature of the alien crafts, the gravity manipulation that comes into play when they enter the ships (very Inception like), the aliens themselves that are more squid like then anything…even though there’s no discernible face, and the coup de gras, their communication method. Though the heptapods (what they come to be known as) do make some sounds their method of communication is non-verbal and comes via an ink that is secreted from their “hands” and floats in the air to form glyphs. They really took no shortcuts in coming up with something fresh and original with the benefits of going this route being immediately apparent.
I can’t finish this review without talking about the twist…though I can’t in good conscience talk about the twist. Quite a dilemma I’ve gotten myself in. A very, well somewhat, straight forward first contact movie turns into a film that tackles some pretty out there ideas before turning around to deliver a direct gut punch of introspection causing you to question how you would react to a similar situation. Many, many things have changed since I became a parent. The one thing that always catches me off guard is the change in reaction I feel to certain films and ideas. There’s something both heart-breaking an beautiful about the message Arrival delivers. You could watch this film and walk away satisfied without giving it another thought, but I think to do so would be to rob yourself of one of it’s best aspects. It truly is one of those films that leaves you with a very personal question to answer after the credits roll…what would you do?
4.5 out of 5 Guttenbergs