Arrival (aka Story of Your Life) review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
When the aliens come, what language will they speak? Arrival weaves a smart sci-fi tale around such a subject, echoing tones from the best episodes of The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. These are not the aliens that want to eat our flesh or blow up our planet. This is not the scenario where courageous human soldiers fire guns wildly at laser-firing spaceships. It’s more unique and engrossing to learn what an alien language might be rather than what color of laser their doomsday machine can fire.
Twelve spaceships, appearing as thin black rocks, loom over the Earth and humanity naturally loses its mind. Riots begin, the military is mobilized and class is pretty much cancelled. Master linguist Louise, a will-over-nerves Amy Adams, is employed by the military to translate what the aliens are communicating from one of the landings in Montana. She’s facing strict orders of protocol by a commanding officer, played with authority by Forest Whitaker, but finds a more cooperative ally with a chipper mathematician played by Jeremy Renner.
But her biggest obstacle is that of translating the alien’s language, presented with the most perplexing levels of communication. Every few hours, the aliens open their vertical doors to a room of shifting gravity where the squid-like creatures address human beings behind glass. Their only means of communicating is from using a floating ink to form circles. Each circle carries different meanings from slight alterations in their formation. Adams’ learning of the language occupies the majority of the picture and it’s a satisfying slow burn of smart science fiction.
It feels odd to recommend Arrival as one of my favorite movies of the year as a science fiction picture in that it does not rely on action. There’s no great plot of the aliens to consume our flesh or watch our cities burn. There’s no grand finale where fighters are scrambled, guns are fired and alien ships explode into flames. Even the singular explosion in the movie feels very understated, presented more as a suspenseful twist in the plot than a pointless detour for action.
Without the reliance on cheap gimmicks, Arrival truly shines for both its script and acting. Amy Adams delivers perhaps one of her best performances in years with a role built for both intelligence and drama. Renner performs admirably as the comic relief, but subtle enough that he’s not an annoying voice in an otherwise focused story. Even Whitaker felt to be a fully realized character, weary of alien visitors, but not gung-ho enough to pull the trigger prematurely.
The story also feels fully utilized as every aspect of these visiting aliens is explored. Though most of the movie takes place at the alien ship in Montana, news reports display the global reaction of riots in the streets and mobilization of military forces. Other nations begin translating the alien language as well which leads to misinterpretations and mistrust between other countries. An online activist spreads propaganda that inspires others to make reactionary moves that could endanger humanity. All of these plot developments play more as contributing story elements rather than crowding arcs, only popping up for as long enough as they’re interesting.
Past all of its brilliantly used special effects and precision writing, Arrival is ultimately an uplifting film about humanity and communication. By the time the movie reveals its shocking third-act twist, there’s enough soul invested into this tale to be easily wooed by its grand message. It’s a somber celebration of life’s struggle, urging humanity to embrace one another for whatever obstacle the future may present. Heavy themes, but not too heavy for the likes of director Denis Villeneuve who can convey such a picture with more intelligent heart than sentimental mush. It’s a picture that’s sure to go down as a sci-fi classic and deservedly so in an era where alien pictures are anything but experimental.