Certificate 12A, 116 minutes
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Stars: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker
Arrival is based on the short story "Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang. It opens with a view out across a stretch of water from inside a house on the shore, and a woman narrating in the background. There is a clip of a woman in hospital, after having just a baby daughter, and then further clips of the daughter growing up, from toddler to young girl to teenage girl to very sick teenage girl. To dead.
Then the woman from earlier, Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams, American Hustle, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Man of Steel), is seen walking into what looks like a university. On the way to the lecture hall to give a talk on Portuguese, she sees groups of students clustered around televisions. Inside the lecture hall itself are only a handful of students, and several of them receive messages on their phones. One asks Dr. Banks to turn on the television, and there is a breaking news story about some sort of craft that has appeared in Montana. The craft is apparently alien in origin. Following this, the university is evacuated as jets fly overhead.
Credit: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Arrival,_Movie_Poster.jpgBanks returns home, to what appears to be the house from the beginning of the film, and continues to listen to the news. There are 12 craft in total scattered around the planet in different countries. They are big, around 1,500' tall, standing on end and shaped somewhat like a cabochon. The next day, Dr. Banks returns to her office in what looks a completely empty university and continues to watch the news, when a Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker, Taken 3, The Last Stand) arrives. In the past, she has done translations for Army Intelligence, holds a Top Secret clearance and is apparently a skilled linguist.
Weber wants Banks to translate something for him. He has a very short recording of odd sounds, that are from aliens in the spaceship, which is being called a "Shell." Banks tells Weber that she can't do a translation unless she's actually at the source; this is after he asks he what she thinks a few seconds of recorded alien speech means. Weber is disappointed and tells Banks that her only option is to translate it here, and that he is carting out everyone to the site, then leaves to speak to another linguist.
That night, as Banks is in bed, a helicopter lands outside the house. Weber has changed his mind, and gives Banks 10 minutes to get ready to leave. Also on the helicopter is Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a theoretical physicist from Los Alamos, and they are transported to the military base in Montana by the Shell "on" U.S. soil - for it is actually floating off the ground. Most of the people at the base are U.S. military, but there is a team of scientists, which Donnelly is now head of, and language experts, which Banks is now leading. Also on site is a representative of the CIA, Agent Halpern (Michael Stuhlbarg).
After a medical and some shots, Banks and Donnelly are escorted to the alien craft, and inside it, wearing hazmat suits for the journey as a precaution. Every 18 hours a hatch opens up into the craft, and they go inside and meet the aliens. The craft itself is mostly smooth, with no protuberances, but the surface itself is roughened. It's also mostly black, but not completely. Inside, in the room where the humans meet the aliens, there is a transparent barrier dividing the human side from the alien. The alien side is filled with a cloudy substance that seems sort of like fog and sort of like water. The aliens themselves are large and tentacled, reminiscent of an octopus in some ways, but with only seven limbs, and they are eventually called Hexapods.
No one has managed so far to communicate with the aliens, but on her second trip Dr. Banks decides to use written communication as a start, instead of verbal. And it is a start, for she gets a response, as one of the aliens creates an image in the air, circular in nature with other shapes and protuberances sticking out from it. This symbol seems to resemble such as ideograms and pictograms more than it does a word. Banks has to explain what she is doing to Colonel Weber, in terms that he can understand and, more importantly, make his superiors understand.
Whilst Banks and Donnelly are on the site, the world behind them is starting to fall apart. People are reacting with fear towards the alien spacecraft, and, with humans, fear is often followed up by aggression. Banks is making progress with translating the alien language, and communicating back to the aliens, but the process takes weeks, if not months, to accomplish, and things around the world are getting worse. The Chinese in particular are starting to get aggressive, but even in Montana some of the soldiers, and the CIA Agent, think that this could be an invasion, and an invasion needs to be stopped before it starts. Most of the people are military in nature, and as Banks and Weber say, if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
The situation around the world continues to get worse, as the presence of the alien craft threatens to start conflicts around the world. If one nation fires on their Shell, the others are sure to follow suit, if only to prevent being affected by retaliation for another country's attack. Against this, Banks and Donnelly have to try and find out what the aliens want before it's too late. Donnelly and Banks also seem to be developing some sort of relationship, but it's a subtle one of people who genuinely like and respect each other, but it could develop into more.
Throughout the film, Banks keeps getting flashbacks of herself and her daughter. These are confusing for the audience and, it seems, to Banks herself, but they are often linked to breakthroughs, as what she does with her daughter can help her understand what is going on in the present. These clips are eventually explained, and it's surprising when they are, and provocative.
There are lingering scenes along black, roughened tunnels towards light at the end, as Banks and the others enter and leave the alien ship. There is music in the background which sound "heavy" and occasionally ominous or perhaps portentous. Sometimes there is complete, or almost complete, silence, except for the background noises of a mostly deserted Montana. The shots of the ship are suitably awesome, and curious, as it simply doesn't have enough features on the outside to truly make sense of it or its purpose, which would appear to be deliberate. There is much uncertainty, as things do not start resolving until the film draws towards its end, but they do draw together and what didn't make sense now does.
If the film has a problem, it's the feeling that it's trying too hard to be stylish. It does look stylish, but sometimes there's a feeling that it's being forced, rather than coming naturally. There would also appear to be a message in it. It's a good message, and one that should be listened to, but it isn't presented that subtly. The problems with said message in real life are amply demonstrated though. Overall, Arrival is a rather different science fiction film, lacking the big special effects of the typical blockbuster, instead going for a different, subtler, and often more though provoking approach.