Arrival is a movie that will probably get missed, opening between Doctor Strange and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. That is a shame because it’s better than Doctor Strange and most likely better than Fantastic Beasts. It’s also very different from those movie. Actually, it’s even different than your typical alien invasion movie. In Arrival, there’s only one explosion, no laser guns, no space scenes, and the aliens do not resemble humans, not even a tiny bit. It’s a quiet movie in which twelve alien ships show up in Earth’s skies and park themselves in random places. And I know it’s random because the movie verbalizes this more than once. They even show us a globe with bright red dots. In fact, the bulk of the movie takes place in a field in Montana.
Excited now? No? What if I told you the main plot of the movie is that the government hires a linguist, Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), to learn the aliens’ language? Ehhhh? Wait…where are you going?
Where is my assistant?
Well, now that the short-attention span people have left, you’ll be happy to know that this movie is a throwback to classical science fiction. It’s much more interested in exploring a concept like two species that don’t even think the same way laboriously learning how to communicate with each other than space battles or podracing. Kind of like Kevin Costner and the Sioux in Dances with Wolves, but without the dead bison. A large amount of time is spend with Dr. Banks as she is deciphering the aliens’ language, which is a series of circles with splotches around the edges (just picture a water ring left by your coffee mug) repeating the words she has shown them on a white board. Wait…where are you going?
In place of chase scenes and shootouts, the movie builds a palpable tension. The entire mission is to find out why the aliens have come to Earth, meaning Dr. Banks’ goal is to get them to understand the question “What is your purpose on Earth?” Think about it for a moment – what was the last alien invasion movie that spent more than eight seconds on that question?
This is where gravity gets weird.
Now you should be wondering what’s at stake in this movie that makes it so tense. Well, other countries are also trying to communicate with the aliens (and everybody is sharing, at least for a while), but they, like those readers who left this review, got impatient. And some of those countries have itchy trigger fingers. It’s paramount that Dr. Banks get an answer to the question before some idiot starts a war with intergalactic travelers. And this would be where the stupid political content comes in.
(SPOILER ALERT BEGINS)
Four soldiers decide to let their hatred and fear of foreigners get the best of them, so they decide to plant a bomb in the spaceship. This scene sucks for so many reasons, not the least of which is a commentary on a certain group of Americans who hate immigrants for wanting a better life and a shot at the mythical American dream. Yes, that first group sucks, but making them four soldiers who start shooting at their fellow soldiers to ensure the bomb is not disabled? Really? The film includes news clips of people rioting and states of emergency, providing plenty of evidence of fear and anger without stooping to making four soldiers stupid enough to believe attacking super advanced aliens is a good idea. Compounding this awful scene is the cliché of our heroes being saved as the bomb timer shows 0:01. I get that this scene was there to catalyze the conflict, but there are so many better ways they could have done this. Not to mention the aliens conveniently develop telepathy only when the bomb timer is down to a few seconds. Did you learn nothing from Galaxy Quest?
(SPOILER ALERT ENDS)
Aside from that scene, my only other complaint is that Jeremy Renner’s character, theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly, is there for no reason. You’d think he’d be there to study the alien technology, but he just giggles at their ability to manipulate gravity and his job appears to be secretary/assistant to Dr. Banks. All we ever see him doing is setting up equipment, holding Dr. Banks’ whiteboard, and occasionally staring at a computer monitor. Did the military really need a physicist for this job? On the flip side, the film pulls a gender role reversal that makes you wonder if the filmmakers deliberately made Donnelly a superficial character who only matters to one small subplot, but is otherwise pointless. In other words, he’s the minimized “other gender” who is only there for emotional support. Well played, filmmakers.
This is pretty much his whole job.
I don’t want you to think those two things ruin the movie because they really don’t. They’re just minor flaws. Nearly everything else in this movie is fantastic, from the music to the stunning visuals to the introduction of the aliens to the way the aliens’ arrival is depicted (we watch people’s reactions to the news rather than watch the news itself) to the terrific performances (rounded out by Forest Whitaker, Tzi Ma, and Michael Stuhlbarg) to the excellent screenplay and story (Eric Heisserer and Ted Chiang, respectively). Mostly, I’m glad that the filmmakers, including director Denis Villeneuve, are patient people who made a patient movie that painstakingly builds the suspense while keeping the audience in the dark on the aliens’ purpose until the end of the film. If you stayed with me for this entire review, then you’ll like Arrival as much as I did.
Rating: Don’t ask for any money back and hope we stop fighting so the aliens don’t avoid us forever.