Review of “Arrival”

Are we alone in the Universe? It’s a question that has been asked practically since the first conscious human looked up at the night sky filled with stars. Throughout history the answer has varied between “we are alone” to “maybe there’s someone out there.” Now after the discoveries of thousands of planets orbiting other stars by the Kepler space probe the answer is almost certainly “there must be other intelligent life out there.” With hundreds of billions of galaxies in the observable universe each with hundreds of billions of stars the probability of at least one world with intelligent life must be high. It makes speculating about what that life might look like, how it would communicate, how far has their technology advanced and the myriad other questions rather overwhelming. Just as head spinning is contemplating how our world would react to the sudden appearance of intelligent extraterrestrial creatures landing in various locations around the planet. Would we welcome them with open arms? Would we prepare for war? Would there be panic in the streets and suicides of those that see the visitors as harbingers of the End Times? With the vast distances between stars and the apparent impossibility of faster than light travel we’ll probably never know for sure if there’s someone up there looking back in our direction wondering if there’s anyone else in the universe. But what if that question was answered for us with the appearance of 12 otherworldly spacecraft showing up in random places around the world? What would we do?

The world is thrown into a panic by the appearance of 12 unidentified flying objects landing in 12 different areas on the planet. Every 18 hours a door opens at the bottom of each craft allowing access to the interior. A breathable atmosphere and appropriate gravity is provided for those that wish to enter. One of the spacecraft has landed in Montana and the Army and CIA have set up a research base nearby. Linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is approached by the Army’s Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to help the government decipher the strange language of the aliens. They bring her and astrophysicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to the site and tell them to get to work on figuring out why the aliens are here and what they want. Starting slowly with simple words and concepts, Banks and Donnelly begin to figure out the complicated symbols the aliens use for communication. Other countries around the world are also working to figure out how to communicate with the creatures, referred to as Heptapods because of their seven legs, and all the scientists are connected and sharing information. When the Chinese translate a message from the Heptapods as “use weapon” they take it as a threat and plan on destroying the ship. Other nations also begin preparations for an attack and communications is cut off amongst all the scientists. Banks believes the alien language is far more complicated and “weapon” could mean “tool” depending on the context. Banks is also experiencing vivid dreams and hallucinations. She must work fast to decipher what the aliens mean in order to prevent a possible war.

“Arrival” is a complex film that almost defies description. This is in part because too much information about the story will ruin what is a deliciously complex narrative structure. While it seems perfectly normal to start, the longer the movie goes the more confused you may get. All I can do is encourage you to stay with it and pay attention as the payoff of all the twistiness is well worth it.

“Arrival” has no death ray guns and no space battles but what it does have is the kind of speculative and smart science fiction that is difficult to pull off and far too rare. This is the kind of movie that knows it will split the audience into two camps: Those that love it and those that hate it with very few people in the middle and I definitely fall on the love it side.

For all the scientific mumbo-jumbo, the story is far more personal and down-to-earth than one might expect. The focus of the film is how this experience is taking an emotional toll on Banks and in a broader sense the rest of the world. Banks is buried in her work and ignoring all the political pressure building around her until the world is about to boil over in violence. Fear of the unknown other also affects the soldiers at the base leading to an act of violence. It is a less than subtle metaphor for the political situation in some countries forced to deal with the realities of Syrian civil war refugees, terrorism and the rise of nationalism. If filming hadn’t taken place in mid-2015 you’d think it was a product of the times.

Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker are all fantastic in their roles. None is flashy or over the top in their portrayal of people faced with a situation for which none of us could be prepared. The acting is subtle, controlled and believable. You may not like the decisions or attitudes of the characters all the time but you can’t argue that any of them behave in a way that isn’t consistent with the story or with what we know about them.

“Arrival” is rated PG-13 for brief strong language. There is only widely scattered foul language.

I like how the story of “Arrival” doesn’t explain everything even when we reach the end. There are questions to contemplate about how any of us would deal with the outcome of our first alien encounter as well as the larger questions posed by the movie. A person in the audience at the showing I saw asked the people she was with, “What was this movie about?” If she had asked me I would have said it’s about practically anything your mind wants to construct from what you’ve seen. For many far less well constructed films that would be a negative; but with “Arrival” it is a compliment. It’s the kind of film that could have multiple meanings figured out with each viewing. A movie that makes you think beyond its running time: What a bizarre concept.

“Arrival” gets five guitars and I insist you see it immediately!

There are five new movies in theatres this week running the gamut from coming-of-age angst to post-war stress. I’ll see and review at least one of the following:

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk—

Bleed For This—

The Edge of Seventeen—

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them—


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