If the root of conflict is miscommunication, then how far can proper communication take us?
Aliens appear on Earth in 12 random spots, silently floating in identical monoliths. Linguistics professor Louise and theoretical physicist Ian are selected by the US Government to investigate one of the ships. Together they combine their skill in communication and science to work with each other, ease tensions between the U.S. government and foreign powers, and lastly, to figure out why the aliens are on Earth.
A distinguishing factor that separates this film from the more typical big sci-fi flick blueprint is the contained depiction of the alien invasion. There are the necessary chaos and panic scenes in the beginning, but even then, director Denis Villeneuve presents them in a clever way, and the focuses the rest of the film on the interplay between our two specialists as they decode the alien's language.
Another way Arrival subverts the expectations of the alien blockbuster is the handling of the main conflict. Whereas some other films might go balls to the wall with the guns and explosions to nuke them back to space, Arrival approaches the aliens as a puzzle to be solved. From step one where we know nothing about the aliens, to where our characters are able to establish communication, the film takes you through each step. Problem-solving through context and the constructs of language is the weapon of choice here and it plays out more exciting than any explosion filled climax.
Without going into too much detail and spoilers, the climax is telegraphed very cleverly through the film. What may seem as random cuts interspersed throughout the first two acts is revealed brilliantly— like watching a magic trick unfold, attentive viewers who are able to follow bread crumbs and Villeneuve’s skillfully misdirection will be rewarded immensely.
The look of Arrival follows the same sickly, undersaturated style present in Villeneuve’s other works. I’m not a fan of this style, but it compliments Arrival’s narrative better than his past films. Some may be moved to tears during the last bits of the film, but I felt it was overly emotional, schmaltzy even. Despite some subjective hiccups, Arrival is one of the better experiences I’ve had watching a film in a theater in while, and definitely the best science-fiction film in recent memory. This is deservedly one of the year’s best and solidifies Villeneuve’s place as one of the great directors today.