The best way to approach Arrival is to avoid knowing too much. So you really should bookmark this page until after you see it. I’m not going to tackle the ending here – but you’ve been warned. Arrival has an emotional impact that derives from how the movie strategically parses out knowledge.
I’m sure a second viewing would radically change how we perceive this sci-fi story, like re-watching Christopher Nolan’s Memento. Granted, I still had a few questions, and a climactic phone-call scene seems silly considering how important it is to the whole story. But overall, Arrival depends on moments of clarity, instead of your typical thriller’s twists. Our comprehension expands gradually, simulating how Amy Adams’ character must feel learning an entirely new, alien language.
Adams is our guide into the story, scripted by Eric Heisserer, taking us with her to a remote Montana outpost where an alien spacecraft “shell” hovers over the ground. Twelve shells have appeared above seemingly random locations around the globe, and intelligence forces in each affected country are working night and day to communicate with the aliens and deduce their mission. Adams plays Louise Banks, a professor of langauges approached by a government intelligence team to speak to the aliens. They have an aural language, the feds assume, but how can we understand it? What can they tell us? In the beginning, all twelve nations are in contact with each other, working together to solve the mystery of the shells. But allegiances fade as countries start to sour on a united diplomatic approach. It takes Adams, our serious, empowered heroine, to convince everyone to keep fighting.
Adams has become our every-woman. Her character’s grief is there beneath the surface, but she knows how to underplay it. Director Denis Villeneuve matches her quietly honest performance with a gray, understated palette—at times ominous, somber, and serene. Jeremy Renner, perpetual movie sidekick, is a sweetly acted counterpart to Adams’s professor; he does well with a character who only becomes clear at the very end.
Seeing Arrival days after the election, it sure does resonate to watch an intellectually driven woman break into a male-dominated workforce and fight to preserve our better instincts. She places trust in the intergalactic refugees that more impulsive nations (China and Russia, what a surprise) believe would represent a danger to Earth. Villeneuve’s movie holds female empathy and intuition in the highest regard. In this not-unimaginable future, humanity tilts precariously between divisiveness and unity, and the movie is clear which side we should choose.