Arrival Review: An Elegant and Powerful Tale of Communication

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It’s been a rough year. Divisions in our country and around the world pose humanity as an argumentative species with no chance of compromise. Whatever side you fall on, humanity as a whole has mourned in 2016. Arrival serves as a call to action. It’s a humbling critique of our species in the same vein as 2001: A Space Odyssey, where first contact is a moment shared equally by all that will undoubtedly determine our future.

Twelve massive, oval-shaped black ships appear all across the globe without explanation. The aliens sit and wait for humanity to approach them, with no signs of intergalactic war other than what we’ve seen in films like Independence Day. The US hires linguist Louise Banks (an excellent Amy Adams) to interpret the sounds the aliens make to establish a connection. She’s joined by fellow linguist Ian Donnelly (a charming but slightly underwritten Jeremy Renner) as they strive to communicate with these visitors as non-violently as possible. Meanwhile, the countries facing these arrivals, including the US, work independently and selfishly to uncover the purpose of the aliens’ presence without communicating with each other.

With that basic plot, Arrival could have been a hokey rallying cry for the different people of the world to find peace. But Denis Villeneuve’s direction, coming off the self-serious and hyper-thrilling Sicario, is an effortless exercise in tone. Thematically, the film has a lot in common with Close Encounters of the Third Kind. But visually and tonally, it’s much more akin to 2001. And just like those two classics, Arrival is refreshingly violence free. There are intense moments to be sure, and the film wouldn’t be nearly as effective otherwise, but tension is built in trying to prevent violence using increasingly complex forms of communication as alien/human relations evolve. This is a thinking person’s science fiction tale, subtle, deliberately paced, and stripped of pizazz.

A lot of that is also thanks to Eric Heisserer’s understated script, based on Ted Chiang’s short story Story of Your Life. The written narrative here plays with time in a fascinating and smartly ambiguous way. In compliance with Villeneuve’s simultaneously grandiose and quiet direction, Arrival doesn’t answer all its questions because it doesn’t need to. It’s a difficult balance to strike in sci-fi when trying to express something both accessible and beyond our comprehension, but here it’s the film’s greatest strength.

There are some narrative fumbles here, including Renner’s one-note “funny guy” character and an aspect of the climax that falls out of line of the rest of the film’s narrative brilliance. But Arrival is so deeply powerful, in a way that aims to heal our species no less, that its minor flaws are easily forgivable. Thanks to the results on Tuesday, we found out the world is a little more wounded than we thought. We need works of art like Arrival now more than ever to reaffirm humanity in its inherent goodness, while exploring complicated decisions we make on a global and personal scale. At it’s root, science fiction as a genre is meant to mirror our world and raise complex questions about the current state of it. For that, Arrival is one of the best of its kind this decade. Grade: A-

By Matt Dougherty

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