It was the day they arrived. Twelve slender, pod-like spacecraft descend around the world, landing in twelve major nations. A door at the bottom opens every 18 hours allowing humans to enter. Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a renowned linguist at university, is called on by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to decipher their language, and determine if these “heptapods” are peace-bearing or war-bringing. She teams up with theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) when after a breakthrough, they must learn the alien’s strange, circle-centric language. It becomes a race against time as nations around the world threaten global war, all while Banks finds herself trapped in memory, blurring the line between what is real and not. She must decipher her own past and future before it is too late.
In the same vein as “Interstellar,” “Arrival” is an awestruck, elegant piece of filmmaking, exploring a human approach to the sci-fi story. Although here, extraterrestrials called heptapods aren’t at all humanoid; they appear to be dark, tall, eight-tentacle creatures separated by a translucent wall. The sound they make is a long eerie wail, and the ink from their tentacles creates strange, artistic characters in the air that Banks must learn to read.
“Arrival” earns points for being, strangely, rather realistic. You wonder if this is what it would be like if aliens came to Earth, where the sharpest professionals are called and the coolest technology is brought to the table. The military protocol is extensive: each time Banks and Donnelly enter the pod, they are suited in huge protective orange suits, and the tricky, messy diplomatic situation surrounding an otherwise scientific investigation is uncomfortably familiar.
Humanity’s reaction is blown up on a global scale – what would we do, if aliens came to Earth? Around the world, we see news flashes of people responding in riots and wreckage. At the same time, we see the highly technical obstacles Banks and Donnelly face in decoding this complex language. Banks is the fearless linguist, stringing together traits of human languages to create something familiar from the unknown. It’s an impressive challenge, and the technology they use is astounding: there’s even a part of the movie where Donnelly, the charming Renner, speaks overhead about how they literally broke down the language barrier, bit by bit.
All the while, the lovely, flame-haired Amy Adams is a force to be reckoned with. As Louise Banks, she has a quiet power, even as flashbacks throughout the movie blur the lines of reality. She keeps seeing a daughter, whose life ends tragically before it has barely begun. The simple beauty of their relationship speaks for itself, and begins to unravel the plot, as Banks must look inward for answers as well.
Many have called “Arrival” an Oscar snub, as Adams was not nominated along with the film. It is a letdown, because Banks’ strength speaks for itself: Adams’ intense, personal performance comes from the nonverbals, like her shaking hands before entering the spaceship. One of the most powerful images of the film is one of its most vulnerable – Banks standing before the heptapods in awe and terror and hope, holding up a sign that reads “Human.”
The film’s central theme is communication, something often overlooked in the sci-fi genre. If we were to face real aliens, we are met with the daunting task of talking with them. That ability to communicate effectively can bridge the line between meaning and misunderstanding: in this case, peace or war, even within our own race. There’s a clever plot twist when the anticipated “weapon” the heptapods hint at turns out to be just words. In the end, what could be more true?
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.