Arrival Is A Smart Sci-Fi Movie That’s Likely To Depress You

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stulbarg and Tzi Ma.

Studio: Paramount Pictures

Rated: PG

Running Time: 1 Hr, 56 Mins

First things first, if you were depressed (or scared) by the outcome of Tuesday’s Presidential election, you might want to skip seeing the new science fiction movie Arrival. At least until after the initial shock has worn off and you’ve had some time to digest what the next four years may look like. Movies are supposed to be an escape, but Arrival may not offer much of that.

Video: Paramount Pictures

Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is considered one of the top linguists in the world and as a result she is recruited by the American government to participate in the largest, most important scientific exercise in the history of humankind; first contact with an alien civilization. Joined by theoretical physicist Ian Connelly (Jeremy Renner), she is part of twelve operations worldwide (one for each alien ship that has touched down on Earth) to establish communications with an alien race.

Dr. Banks soon finds the clock ticking though, as fear and intolerance begin sweeping the globe. Not only do other nations begin threatening violent actions towards the mysterious alien visitors, but pressures are soon mounting in the United States as well. Civil fear and political reluctance begin transforming caution into paranoia and Doctors Banks and Connolly quickly find themselves racing against an impossible deadline, trying to overcome an inconceivable language barrier before war breaks out with a civilization of unimaginable superiority. And Banks must do this while seemingly haunted by the tragic loss of her daughter.

Arrival is a smart, clever science fiction movie. There are no giant explosions, no space battles or chases or gunfights. This is a thinking person’s movie. Unlike other movies in the genre, the story never takes a back seat to the special effects (while impressive, the FX are always practical). Everything serves the larger context of the story, which slowly builds to its climax. It carefully layers itself around its central premise, pacing the reveal with a carefully planned approach.

Adams is impressive as the brilliant Louise Banks, balancing her scientific curiosity with her overpowering fear. And she manages all that while convincing the viewer that she’s soon wrestling with exhaustion and personal tragedy. Renner seems satisfied as her scientific sidekick and Forest Whitaker effectively sells his role as Colonel Weber, a military man who realizes he’s in the middle of enormous events but remains steadfastly loyal to his duty.

Arrival offers a different approach to communicating with an alien civilization. Even though efforts are coordinated through the military (which they would be), violence isn’t the first response. It accurately depicts that most of the powers that be would take a measured, scientific approach to the issue. It also shows that not only would the experience be too much for some people (Banks isn’t the first linguist the government turns to; her predecessor breaks down under the pressure), but for entire countries as well.

The story isn’t perfect. It plods along on occasion and one glaring problem is its failure to address the central narrative. The movie’s resolution and its central conceit all hinge on one narrative lever, but once pulled the film doesn’t explain why that lever exists. And it’s a pretty big lever.

But Arrival doesn’t flinch from the ugliness of reality. It doesn’t sugar coat human nature. The real enemy isn’t the aliens; it isn’t even the ignorance and fear their arrival inspires among humanity. Instead it’s the human capacity to choose fear. It’s the realization that intolerance and violence are conscious choices and that fear and bigotry are ideas whose only power is the power we grant them. Which brings me back to my opening premise; if you were depressed by the outcome of last Tuesday’s election, Arrival may not prove much of an escape. There’s a very good chance it could depress you more.

Picture: Paramount Pictures