A German "Zeppelin" flying over the German warship "Seydlitz", circa World War One. Bizzarely, the alien spacecraft in the new sci-fi film "Arrival" reminded me very much of the Zeppelins from 100 years ago. (Photo: Wikipedia/US Public Domain.)
I saw this movie a week or so ago, so I've had a bit of time to think about my response to it.
I liked it!
I don't mind a science fiction film from time to time, and this one's good. Directed by French-Canadian Denis Villeneuve, adapted from a short story by Ted Chiang, this is an "alien visitation" movie. Not one of those bang-bang, shoot-'em-up alien movies like "Independence Day", but something a bit deeper, more cerebral.
12 alien spacecraft touch down separately at various places around the world, including one in Montana, USA. They show no signs of aggression, and the US government, while wary, decides to try communicating with them peacefully. Amy Adams plays Louise Banks, a renowned university linguistics professor. The government hopes her skills will enable them to "crack" the alien's language. She is joined by theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly, played by Jeremy Renner. They succeed in making contact with the aliens – they look like squids – and each side struggles to decipher the other's language.
Other governments at other touch-down sites are not so accommodating. The Chinese government, in particular, decides the aliens are probably hostile and starts getting ready to attack them. Banks and Donnelly, meanwhile, are having some success in talking to the aliens, and decide they are peaceful; the aliens are only interested in sharing scientific knowledge with the human race. The US winds back its own military preparations, but China doesn't. Banks (Amy Adams) thinks it will be a disaster if China attacks the aliens, and realises she must, at all costs, contact the Chinese commander-in-chief to convince him of the alien's peaceful purposes. It becomes a race against time.
I won't reveal the ending, because this film is worth seeing. It is true there are certain mystical, time-travel themes in the film; there is an element of "second sight" by the Louise Banks character (she has constant visions of her young daughter who died previously); these mystical elements are actually key ingredients to the resolution of the plot. But at the same time, the film grapples with more realistic, down-to-earth questions: what should the human race's first response be if aliens actually did land here? Should any response be left to individual nations (as happens here in the film), or should it be a co-ordinated effort led by someone such as the UN? How would the man (and woman) in the street react to such stupendous news? Probably, as shown in the movie, there would be reactions ranging from positive curiosity, through fear, through uncertainty, to outright aggression. Would populations riot on learning the news? All these scenarios are shown or hinted at in this movie. The message of the movie seems to be: don't leave it up to the military but trust the scientists to craft a rational response.
Direction is good, special effects are convincing, the sound effects are great – I'm sure they borrowed some of the sound effects from the Tom Cruise version of "War of the Worlds" – and the acting from Adams and Renner is very good: both nicely capture the feeling of two scientists struggling to make sure sanity prevails over military/political idiocy. Of course, as you would expect from a Hollywood film, the two lead characters develop feelings for each other, but this romantic element actually complements and "tails" the story quite nicely.
Happily, at least from my point of view, there is little or no gunplay in the film. While many firearms are visible, they are hardly used. Here instead, brain power and intellect try to triumph over military and political hot-headedness. But will brain power win the day? Or should humankind adopt the precautionary approach, i.e. shoot first and hope to God the aliens' technology is not superior to ours? These are some of the issues explored in this thoughtful but exciting movie.
This is definitely a film for the "thinking" sci-fi fan. Strongly recommended.
My star rating out of five: * * * * 1/4