Arrival opens by teasing the viewer with a voiceover by its lead protagonist, Dr. Louise Banks (played by Amy Adams) announcing the birth of her daughter with softly spoken words “I used to think this was the beginning of your story”.
If this was meant to fool the viewer into thinking the movie was about a mother and the arrival of her baby, it does not work for any viewer who had seen previews of the movie before its theatrical release.
Arrival is about aliens, and whilst a series of scenes take the viewer through a chronology of Dr. Banks’ baby’s brief life, the viewer’s expectation is focused on the aliens promised in the movie trailer.
Soon enough, the movie progresses to the titular arrival announced to dramatic effect with a series of phone calls and text messages going off in an almost empty lecture hall and breaking news interludes on television.
But director, Denis Villeneuve, is not quite done with teasing and heightening viewer expectation just yet. He tarries with revealing the aliens for quite a bit by leading the viewer slowly through the motions leading to the big reveal which he makes with measured flourish through Dr. Banks’ point of view shot in a helicopter ride and a dizzying circular camera shot.
In Arrival, 12 alien space ships shaped like massive oval discs make not-quite landfall in 12 seemingly random countries on earth. Humans are understandably perturbed by the sights of these space behemoths wondering if the aliens had come in peace or with hostile intentions.
In a bid to unravel the mystery of their arrival, the Americans enlist the services of linguist, Dr. Banks and Theoretical Physicist, Ian Donnelly (played by Jeremy Renner). Similar attempts at unraveling the purpose of the alien visit are undertaken across the other landing sites across the world by, notably, the Chinese and the Russians.
In a not-so-subtle hint of art imitating life (exemplified by the mutual suspicion that pervades present day geopolitics), rather than share intel individually obtained from their respective interactions with the aliens, the world super powers engage in a divisive game of one-upmanship.
This quickly escalates into a potential declaration of war against the aliens first by the Chines, followed by the Russians and then the Americans. Whilst the big boys flex their military muscles, Dr. Banks, convinced that the incident that triggered this potentially dangerous turn of events was more lost in translation than a perceived call to arms, tries frantically to douse rising tension.
Where other alien movies would have opted for the razzle and dazzle of special effects and CGIs to advance their story telling, Arrival chose a slow, methodical and cerebral approach. It invites the viewer to participate in the decryption of the communication with the aliens, and enlists the viewer’s attention in navigating the labyrinth of Dr. Banks’ dreams about her daughter to illuminate the path to understanding the purpose of the aliens’ arrival.
The unhurried but intense story telling pace that Arrival opted for called for a similar pace in performance by its actors.
In this regard, Amy Adams ditched her trademark understated but extremely effective sexy freckleness for a sombre and almost melancholic visage which she imbued with sufficient humanity and belief in the power of communication to avert a possible intergalactic catastrophe.
Where in its denouement, Arrival would have sunken into a saccharine cop out; Adams’ deftly-handled sombreness and melancholia elevated it to an almost philosophical paean to existential self-discovery.
As Ian Donnelly, Jeremy Renner played the part with the right amount of support to Adams’ Dr. Banks to enable the latter pull off her role as the fulcrum of the movie’s storyline. He was not in the way long enough to not take the spot light off Adam’s Dr. Banks but stayed long enough to infuse the movie’s denouement with believability.
As the Army colonel coordinating the American interaction with the alien ship that berthed in Montana, Forest Whitaker parlayed a career lifetime of playing similar characters to effortlessly pull off a stonewall no-nonsense government type.
Arrival, like many sci-fi movies before it, attempted to answer the big existential questions of are we alone in the universe? And; the others, if and when they make contact with us; will they be friendly or hostile? But it also poses another existential question; if you could see your life from how it begins to how it ends, will you change anything?
In the end, Arrival is a triumph of slow, methodical and cerebral movie storytelling over fast-paced but empty special-effects and CGI-laden dud fests in a movie genre that would have typically favoured the latter.