Science-fiction is a genre which constantly delights and surprises. It has the potential to tell the most creative stories, while fostering intelligent discussions about the nature of humanity. Arrival competently follows this formula, struggling to be exceptional but interspersed with moments of brilliance.
The world descends into hysteria after twelve extra-terrestrial vessels enter into Earth’s atmosphere. Governments, militaries and the public are all left baffled by their arrival (sorry!), unable to predict their intentions or even communicate with the spacecraft. In order to do so, the U.S. military will require the help of academic Dr Louise Banks (Amy Adams), an expert in linguistics.
Under the supervision of Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), Louise is paired with scientist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy “Hawkeye” Renner) and the two are flown to the nearest of the twelve landing-sites in rural Montana. Though early efforts to engage with the alien lifeforms prove elusive, pretty soon they begin communicating with the humans, and Louise’s team are making great strides in understanding their language.
The aliens, referred to as “Heptapods” in the film, would have to be the most fascinating aspect of Arrival. Without wishing to give too much away, their design and the way they communicate is ingenious and, dare I say it, revolutionary. It’s probable that years from now, film-makers will look to this film as inspiration for their own creature-creations.
The story also puts forward a pretty believable representation of how humanity would react to an alien invasion. Talks between governments break down as old grievances come to the fore; shock-jocks berate their elected officials not acting to the crisis sooner; misinformation is rife after the leaking of sensitive material to the media. Conventional stuff, but it does help add to the film’s tension.
Speaking of which, Arrival does an excellent job of engaging its audience – the steady pacing and deliberate vagueness of the plot both aid in creating a mysterious tone. This mystery is reinforced by Louise’s visions of her deceased daughter, the impact of which she experiences throughout. In these ways, the tone is somewhat similar to the Steven Spielberg classic Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
This, unfortunately, means that Arrival is robbed of its originality, and less impactful than it should be. Instead of feeling uplifted or fulfilled, by story’s end one can’t help but feel underwhelmed, perplexed even. Though it should be stressed, the movie never does anything wrong – rather, it would benefit from being bolder, or taking more risks, for it to be truly remarkable.
So while Arrival may not reach the upper-echelons of cinema’s greatest science-fiction features, it is not a film devoid of positives. Its innovative alien designs, sound social commentary and welcome tone are all enough to make it enjoyable.