Review: Arrival Offers Cerebral Close Encounters

By Valerie Kalfrin · November 14, 2016

The mysterious spacecraft in Arrival might as well be the tip of an iceberg. This thoughtful, deeply emotional film builds a delicately expansive tale about the power of words, stories, and connection around a plot ostensibly about alien contact. 


Linguaphiles and fans of cerebral science fiction will love it.


Director Denis Villeneuve (PrisonersSicario) and screenwriter Eric Heisserer (Lights Out) have adapted Ted Chiang’s Nebula Award-winning novella, “Story of Your Life,” into a masterful meditation on time and memory, choices and fate. If you’ve read the novella, you’ll know where the film is headed, but it’s a pleasure nonetheless to watch it unfold, building a clear narrative from a nonlinear work and injecting tension and suspense along the way.


Brilliant linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is so isolated in her own thoughts that she doesn’t even notice the people around her stopping to watch news reports of the dozen spacecraft arriving around the world. The military soon asks her to decipher a recording of the aliens’ reverberating speech, remembering her help on a past translation project. Louise successfully argues the need to be on site with her interpretation of the Sanskrit word for war – not the first time the film highlights how messy language is.


The military – and the world at large – are eager for answers. Where are these beings from, and why are they here? Like any adult who’s ever talked to a toddler, Louise knows asking this outright is doomed to fail. She can’t mimic the aliens’ sounds, so she attempts to establish a common written vocabulary. (No flashing lights a la Independence Day or a five-note scale as in Close Encounters.) Physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) is on her side, with Renner injecting a relatable, down-to-earth sense of humor. But even if Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) appreciates her perspective, he has no time for nuance. As fear and uncertainty build, some governments and individuals advocate action over talk – specifically shooting first.


Why don’t the aliens don’t use some kind of mass telepathy to express themselves? There’s a purpose to the way they and Louise communicate, one meant for the audience as much as this protagonist. Adams, with her natural warmth and empathy, ably conveys nervousness and awe, bittersweet realization, acceptance and grace.


“Memory is a strange thing,” Louise’s narration intones. The film gives us a beginning to one story – the aliens’ arrival on Earth – but leaves us to question how others start and end. Where does Louise’s story begin? At birth? When she holds her newborn daughter in her arms? Setting foot inside the alien craft? Or with a knock on the door in the dead of night, calling her to answer?