Are we alone in the universe? If not, who else is out there? Will we ever meet them? How many other life forms could there be? These are questions not at all addressed in Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, which just screened at the Toronto International Film Festival. And this is my sort of smart-alecky way of saying that even though Arrival might seem like an alien movie – you know, the kind that usually involves some sort of a ray gun – it’s not really a movie about aliens … even though aliens play a big role in the film. (I know, I’m being cryptic, but this is a hard movie to write about without giving plot points away that you probably don’t want to know.)
Arrival is one of those movies that will play 100 percent differently the second time you watch it. I am a fan of spoilers and had the plot (a one sentence explanation that completely changes the outlook of the film) spoiled for me before I saw it, and I loved watching the film this way. From the first scene, I felt in tune with what was happening and could admire how all this information was being presented. This is a personal choice. This is how I like to watch movies. If you feel the same way, I’d seek out the plot before seeing Arrival, which was adapted from the Ted Chiang short story “Story of Your Life,” but I won’t be feeding you that here.
Amy Adams plays Dr. Louise Banks, a linguistic expert recruited by the U.S. military (specifically Colonel Weber, played by Forest Whitaker) after an alien spacecraft lands in Montana. This is just one of 12 ships that have landed across the planet, and every host country is dealing with those ships in their own unique way. (China, for example, is aggressive and is on a daily brink of war with the aliens.) Louise is teamed with a mathematician, Ian (Jeremy Renner), in an effort to come up with some way to communicate with these aliens. By the time Louise and Ian get involved, a sort of communication port has been set up: basically a room in the alien spaceship in which the humans stand on one side of a glass wall speaking English while two floating heptapods grunt and groan on the other. Anyway, there’s a long road ahead.
While this is going on, we see flashes to another time of Louise’s life with a young girl who is obviously her daughter. Often, these flashes are to when her daughter is a young teenager and is gravely ill. These interludes, away from the alien story, away from the timeline we are currently in, become more and more important as the film progresses.
Eventually, Louise does figure out a way to communicate with the aliens. Communicating verbally is impossible, but visual words work – which leads the aliens to communicate by writing in their own language, represented by large circles with hundreds of meanings buried deep within. Louise doesn’t just learn their language, she learns how to think like the aliens, which changes her world forever. (I hope you like learning about linguistics, because there’s a lot of things you will learn about language while watching Arrival. But even though there’s a lot, to be wary of this would kind of be like saying you don’t want to see Whiplash because there’s a lot of talk about drumming.)
Arrival is very good. See, I took a tip from the film and tried to communicate that to you in a precise way. Denis Villeneuve’s movies have been criticized as pretentious. And if you’ve seen Prisoners or Enemy or Sicario, well, sure, there’s some truth to that. But I happen to like Villeneuve’s brand of pretentiousness. You know, sometimes we could all use some healthy pretentiousness in our lives. And Arrival is quite pretentious. But, again, it’s the good kind. It’s the smart kind. It’s the kind that, at the end of this film, will make you think, Oh, so THAT was the point of this movie. Well, that was very heavy handed, but I didn’t realize how heavy handed it was until the end. So that’s my advice to you: If you want your heavy-handedness to be obvious, seek out the explanation of this film. (A.k.a.: Spoilers.) If you want your heavy-handedness sugar coated, go in not knowing anything. But, either way, see Arrival. We are lucky a director like Villeneuve gets to make movies like this. (And now that he’s doing Blade Runner 2, who really knows how many more there will be?)
Mike Ryan lives in New York City and has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.