“Arrival” arrives as a stunning existential sci-fi masterpiece

Think of any typical science fiction film and images of aggressive extraterrestrials, militaristic flying spacecrafts and advanced laser guns immediately come to mind. This is not so for “Arrival”: focusing on the philosophy rather than the action of sci-fi, its aliens are peaceful elephant-like heptapods, the spacecraft is an inactive oblong block, and the weapons are plainly from the US military. Without a single shot of outer space, it’s a unique film that challenges the human understanding of time and communication through a story of an extraterrestrial first encounter.

Directed by Denis Villeneuve, “Arrival” opens with the landing of 12 spacecrafts across the world as different nations command interaction with the spacecrafts’ alien owners, the heptapods. US Army Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) enlists the help of linguistics professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and military physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) for coordinating an effort to discover the motives of the heptapods who landed at Montana, nicknamed Abbott and Costello. As time passes and the instability of civilians and international relations increases, Banks and Donnelly are pressured to find the meaning of the “weapon” or “gift” that the heptapods speak of with their limited mix of English vocabulary and circular symbols, all while Banks battles unsettling images of life with her daughter.

Adams’ portrayal of the quiet yet sarcastic and unwavering Banks stands out as the film’s best quality. Anyone who’d choose to study linguistics can fairly be called a nerd, and Adams brings out such a meticulousness within her character through soft-spoken lines; however, she also doesn’t forget to emphasize the protagonist’s uneasy yet world-saving strength with hard facial expressions. Renner, usually known for more active and stoic characters such as the Avengers’ Hawkeye, comes in a surprising second for his own performance, showing that he can bring gentle (and even romantic) emotion and humor to his geeky, laid-back Donnelly.

The plot of “Arrival” is the other star of the film as it moves in time with the film itself. There are no easy predictions, yet the twists and turns that pervade are graceful rather than forced (despite the use of military clichés like “evil” Russia/China, those cheesy army communication graphics, and the dumb, low-level, overly-aggressive soldier that tries and fails to ruin everything). It’s a film reminiscent of “Interstellar,” where nothing makes sense until the bitterly hopeful end, and the philosophical existence of humans–free will or determinism?–are called into question.

The writers of “Arrival” have Ted Chiang’s short story, “Story of Your Life,” to thank for the mind blowing existential themes. While Chiang’s version deals with the same philosophical questions and basic plotline, he uses more math and physics theorems to explain the murkier, taken-for-granted aspects of the plot, such as the heptapods’ perception of time. I highly recommend reading it, as “Story of Your Life” will only increase your understanding of “Arrival” with Chiang’s thorough explanations. It’s also the source of a few key lines from the movie and will clarify why some of the dialogue sounded so hilariously awkward and out-of-context as the screenwriters attempted to draw a few connections to the original story. Or, maybe they were just trolls.

If it all sounds confusing, you’ll need to personally watch “Arrival” in order to understand why I felt like I was creating a 15th century world map while writing this review: there are whole parts of the movie that I can’t even murmur about without spoiling your experience. With stunning wide shots, carefully crafted CGI, and a memorable soundtrack that matches the melancholy and ominous visual tones throughout the film, “Arrival” is a must see 5 star movie.

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