Review: 'Arrival' is not your typical alien movie

Fred Hawson

Posted at Feb 16 2017 12:08 PM

"Arrival" got eight nominations in this year's Oscar Awards, including nods for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay. It is a science fiction film directed by Denis Villeneuve, a Canadian director who had previously impressed with films like "Prisoners" (2013) and "Sicario" (2015). Screenwriter Eric Heisserer takes a big leap up from his previous output in horror flicks like "Lights Out" (2016) and "The Thing" (2011) to create an enigmatic script based on a 1998 sci-fi short story by Ted Chiang entitled "Story of Your Life."

One day, 12 unusual bowl-shaped alien spacecraft appear in different locations all across the planet. One of them hovers over Montana in the US near a military camp where linguistics professor Louise Banks has been brought in by Army Col. Weber (Forest Whitaker) to try and establish communication with the two "heptapod" creatures on board. Together with physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), Louise decodes the strange, seemingly random circular "messages" the aliens send. Meanwhile, Louise is also being unsettled by dreams of uncertain meaning featuring her and her daughter.

It is to the credit of this film that it pursues an uncommon path when it comes to alien visitors to Earth -- not as an action film (like "Independence Day") or a kids film (like "E.T."). "Arrival" is a very sober and thought-provoking film about establishing understanding - not only with the aliens, but among countries of the world, and also within one's self. The lead character is in fact a linguist, not really a hero we would expect in a sci-fi film with aliens, but she is a hero who embodies the main points of this special film.

It is very surprising indeed that for a film nominated for eight Oscar awards, the central performance of Amy Adams as Louise was the one overlooked. Adams had been nominated for Oscar five times before, mostly for supporting roles in films like "Junebug" (2006), "Doubt" (2008), "The Fighter" (2010) and "The Master" (2012). When she was finally nominated for Best Actress in "American Hustle" (2013), she was not really the main character. But here in "Arrival," Adams is front and center with a restrained, low-key but emotionally charged performance.

The production design is very unusual as well as mind-boggling. The vertical orientation of those salad bowl space craft was a haunting sight as they hover. I was actually waiting for some moment of unity from these spaceship, but nothing like that really happens. The appearance of the heptapod alien creatures were also of strange design that do not really suggest intelligence or benevolence. We were not really given much information about their physiology or motivations, which was a pity.

The pictographic circular heptapod "statements" were an innovative idea of written language, even if they did look like stains left by coffee mugs on a table. My only problem there is that we do not really get a deeper insight as to how Louise managed to be able to read them with certainty, without actual scientific validation. She started with a white board and pen, which looked pitifully low-tech given the circumstances. Next thing, we already see her with a tablet that had software with various heptapod symbols she could click on, but we were not told how she came up with these and how these could be connected into a circle statement the aliens could comprehend.

Overall I still liked this film for the important message it was telling us -- the importance of communication through space and time. Its non-linear storytelling, glacial pace, moody look and breathy soundscape may not be for everyone, but I thought this message is well worth the two hours it takes to watch this film.

However, it cannot be denied that there were a lot of questions raised, foremost of which was the nebulous connection of Louise's alien interactions to her visions, as well as her mysterious critical phone call. Answers will not be immediately evident by the end of the film. These questions will challenge the viewers to think and discuss further after the film trying to unravel them. 8/10

This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."