It’s really tempting to be flip about Arrival. Oh man, aliens have arrived/encountered us/knocked politely with the smiles of Jehovah’s Witnesses/etc. and no one knows what to do! We must ask the Very Attractive Scientists to save the day! And, to some extent, Arrival does fall into tropes. There is the scene where the scary army officer—Colonel Weber, played just a touch creepily by Forest Whitaker—shows up unannounced to recruit the heroine, linguist Louise Banks (played by Amy Adams, who is fabulous). There is the scene where the dashing scientific counterpart—Jeremy Renner, making a heroic effort to leave Hawkeye and Aaron Cross (the guy he played in The Bourne Legacy, but really who cares) with the confidence and carriage of a much less attractive man, flirts with said heroine, awkwardly, by reading her own book at her. But these are, on the whole, acceptable failings, because Arrival is the best sci-fi to come out in recent memory. Look. I’ll say it: Interstellar sucks, and Arrival is better in every way.
The alien situation this time around is much like the alien situation last time around (cf. Keanu Reeves’ The Day the Earth Stood Still) except this time there are 12 spooky, monolithic ships, and they are mostly harmless. These ships—colossal, awe-inspiring pebble-Stonehenges—descend in aesthetically pleasing silence on various locales and hover there. Every 18 hours, they open up a hole in the bottom of the ship and let some tiny little earthlings in. Governments around the world promptly freak out. The United States looks to Louise Banks to crack the question everyone wants to know: what the heck are these weird, floating space squid (actually they’re heptapods) getting at, coming here in their big, mysterious ships?
Every trope of the alien-contact storyline is updated slightly in ways that are often striking and unsettling. When the alien spaceships descend all over the world, we see the societal unrest they cause mostly through the standard array of television talking heads. They serve their usual purpose, which is to move the plot forward and condense outside events into a digestible package, but they also feel self-aware. “ALIEN CRISIS DAY: 4,” they blare on the chyrons, neatly labeling and quantifying what is going on and turning it into an event. When we briefly see the real, non-mediated world for ourselves, the usual scene of disarray is tinged with the unease of the modern police state: men in SECURITY vests watch the chaos from a bridge above the scrum and sleek, hyper-modern fighter jets roar by. Early in the movie, as Banks lies in bed, a flying object hurtles toward her house from the horizon, looking just like an alien ship. It is a military helicopter.
Colonel Weber tells Banks he sought her out partly because of some bureaucratic mumbo jumbo, but also because the last time they worked together she made “quick work” of some Farsi translations.
Amy Adams, playing Louise Banks—linguistics professor, erstwhile government expert, grieving mother—delivers an emotionally stirring performance which reminds us that masculinity, in addition to being toxic, is also just plain boring. The movie opens with a soft, feathery montage of her daughter’s childhood, adolescence, and eventual death from cancer. Banks’s grief is the center of the movie, and it never quite goes away. Part of this is because the movie is interspersed with flashes of her life together with her child. But her grief also functions more subtly as the undertone of the entire movie: even when Arrival is at its most cerebral, or beautiful, or riveting, everything always feels just a bit muted, just a bit sad. Look, dude, this movie has super cool space stuff, but also feelings.
Language is the conceptual center of the movie. Donnelly, in his nerdy courtship with Banks, actually quotes some pretty cool work of hers: language, she wrote, is “the first weapon drawn in a conflict.” Later in the movie, the entire world almost blows itself up because the aliens got the words “weapon” and “tool” mixed up, which, you know, happens. Colonel Weber tells Banks that he reports to a group of men whose “first and last question” for him is “how can this be used against us?”, and the world inches closer and closer to conflict as the alien spaceships throw everything into disarray. But the point is made most effectively the first time we see the alien spaceship that landed in the United States. The camera begins aimed at the ship, forbidding and monumental-looking suspended above a field as mist spills over the mountains to its right. The view pans over to the camp beneath it, which looks like rows of tanks. But there are no cannons here; only antennae, pointed and arranged in a neat battle-line.
The pacing of Arrival is, broadly speaking, in two parts. The first half of the movie is solemn and deliberate. Then there is the second half, which apparently drank a lot of Mountain Dew. Eventually, despite the explosive interference of some renegade soldiers who bought into the Media (this film literally has an Alex Jones analogue), Banks learns the heptapod language, which turns out to be trippy as fuck. In a sequence that plays out like Inception (another overrated film; bite me) meets Slaughterhouse-Five, Banks becomes unstuck in time, and mind-bending ensues. Your head will hurt, and it will be awesome. I almost want to talk about Nietzschean eternal recurrence.
What’s especially remarkable is that unlike in aforementioned, inferior films (Inception sucks), this time-space loopiness drives the emotional arc forward and leaves you devastated, instead of only being a neat narrative trick. Just like Banks’ life, which by the end of the film she experiences simultaneously instead of linearly, the movie’s scenes make sense as collectively experienced all at once. The movie ends, like it begins, and like one of the heptapod’s inky circular sentences, with Banks and her child. We are reminded of her haunting words in the opening scenes: “Come back to me. Come back to me. Come back to me.”