Film Review: Arrival, A Beautifully Human Story

2016_09_arrival I'm not sure if Paramount deliberately set the release date for Arrival for the Friday after Election Day, but in so many ways, it makes sense. What happens in the film is that 12 enormous spaceships perilously hover over various locations around the planet, including one in Montana, and it isn’t too much of a spoiler to say that one of the primary concerns of Arrival is pushing the world toward a place where all nations must cooperate in order to solve a potentially life-threatening mystery. There’s a great deal more to the film than that, but the idea that we must all work together to survive is one that stands out this week. Based on the short story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang and adapted by Eric Heisserer (Lights Out), Arrival isn’t so much about an alien invasion as it is about opening lines of communication between humans and creatures that not only don’t speak our languages but also don’t use language in the same way we do. What I cherish so much about Arrival is that it places the highest value on science and smarts over braun and firepower. To try and establish a dialogue with the visitors, one of the nation’s top linguists, Louise Banks (Amy Adams), is brought in by the military. Her ideas about teaching each other words and phrases to begin the process is fruitful but slow, something that doesn’t sit well with the military or the intelligence-gathering community. Supporting Banks with his expertise in theoretical physics is Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner). The pair go into the craft every 18 hours and attempt to establish a common language and discover why the aliens have come to earth. We soon find out that most of the other nations that have crafts above them are doing versions of the same thing. Everyone seems to be sharing data for now, but as the world becomes more frightened of the unknown, the lines of exchanging information between countries becomes fragile. Photography courtesy of Paramount Pictures. Photography courtesy of Paramount Pictures. If you think that Arrival is all about getting into the ship or discovering what the aliens looks like, think again. All of that is unveiled in the first 30 minutes. Arrival is both about something much more substantial for the world and slightly oblique for the woman at the center of this story. During this process, she’s seeing images in her head. Are they memories? Or are they something more complicated and interesting? Whatever they are, they transform Arrival into a very personal and emotionally raw journey for Banks. Her mission may involve saving the world, but her goal is to break through to these intelligent creatures to save a piece of her soul. And when all is revealed, it’s entirely possible that you will be both confused and/or crying your eyes out. French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (Incendies, Prisoners, Sicario, as well as next year’s Blade Runner 2049) has created a steely, cold atmosphere, punctuated by moments of warmth within Banks’s visions and certain moments between her and Donnelly. Adams is at her absolute best here, with a combination of dedication, brains, knowing that she’s the smartest and most able person in any room without being cocky about it. She makes the point early on that “Language is the first weapon drawn in a conflict,” but she’s also keenly aware that it’s also the first brick placed on a path to resolution. And perhaps that’s the takeaway from the film, that as long as we’re talking to each other, we’re probably not fighting. Photography courtesy of Paramount Pictures. Photography courtesy of Paramount Pictures. I wish the plot hadn’t resorted to such an obvious villain character in Michael Stuhlbarg’s CIA agent Halpern, but he keeps the time pressure on the operation and forces the scientists to think outside their usual parameters of solving problems. There’s also a ridiculous subplot involving one of the soldiers who regularly accompanies the scientists into the ship who lets his paranoia get the best of him; thankfully that storyline is short-lived. Arrival never feels rushed or trite or formulaic, which is rare in the science-fiction arena. I don’t want to say too much about the alien design, but they walk the line between inspiring terror and occupying a place of grace by the end of the film. The ending of the film unspools in a way that some mind find maddening (although I’m guessing that if you don’t like the ending, you probably won’t like the rest of the film either), but I liked it’s honest attempt to be unconventional and be about something more than will they/we or won’t they/we destroy the world as a way to resolve this mystery. Above all else, Arrival is a beautifully human story that allows unfiltered emotion to come into play in a big way. I’ve actually seen the film twice so far, and I can attest that watching it a second time, knowing all of its secrets, is an even more enriching experience than the first. Going in with an open mind will certainly help, but I believe that about every film we see. Arrival is easily one of my favorite films of the year and it's easy to understand why it was a sensation at the recent Chicago International Film Festival. To read my exclusive interview with Arrival screenwriter Eric Heisserer, go to Ain’t It Cool News.
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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.