Though based on a novella titled Story of Your Life, Arrival is also the story of language.
Communication, both verbal and non-verbal, is treated with the utmost reverence. Characters stress the importance of specific word choices, of having absolute clarity of intentions, of listening carefully to ensure you understand what the other party is telling you. Because the stakes are incredibly high.
What a movie to come out the week of the presidential election.
Arrival is the story of Louise (Amy Adams), a language expert recruited by the military in the wake of 12 alien spacecrafts arriving on Earth. The extraterrestrial life forms are mysterious but clearly intelligent, and Louise is tasked with figuring out how to communicate with them.
With her in America is mathematician Ian (Jeremy Renner) Col. Weber (Forest Whitaker) and a host of various soldiers and government operatives. Around the globe, though, are similar teams camped out at the 11 other UFO landing sites, each of them trying to figure out why the visitors are here.
Though most of Arrival is centered on Louise, we get glimpses at the rest of the world through news reports. At best, the rest of the world is quietly scared. At worst, they're rioting. News anchors talk about viral leaked photos of the aliens while shock jocks try to convince the people of their nation to strike first — kill the invaders and ask questions later.
For the audience, things are much quieter. What little music there is in Arrival is otherworldly, allowing us to be focused on Louise's task at hand while also deeply unsettled by the question of "what if?"
What's striking about all of this is how human it is at every step. Yes, Arrival is science-fiction, and the appearance of a spaceship on the film's poster will be enough to turn some people away. "Aliens? Interplanetary travel? Confusing talk about time and space? I'm out."
But much of this movie would be the same if you simply replaced the aliens with a new race of humans. Both groups would still have to figure out how to talk to each other, and both would worry about the other's intentions. Do the visitors come in peace? Will the established civilization have the patience to talk or will they simply wipe out a potential threat?
That said, by the time it ends, Arrival is a story that could only be told in the science-fiction genre, and the result is a beautiful narrative that you find has been telling you things about itself without you ever realizing it.
The movie is accessible in addition to smart. It's less confusing than Interstellar, more focused than Contact, more personal than Close Encounters of the Third Kind. With its slow-but-steady pace and quiet atmosphere, it actually has more in common with Signs than most sci-fi films (but don't worry, there are no jump-scares here).
Arrival manages to make linguistics fascinating, convey a sense of wonder for the unknown and tell a very personal story about one woman all in the span of two hours. For a story that's all about making the most of every single word you use, it serves as a shining example of its own lesson.
Directed by Denis Villeneuve. PG-13 (for for brief strong language). 116 minutes. In wide release.