The 50th anniversary of Star Trek this week really put in perspective just how long we’ve been living with the concept of extraterrestrials. In 2016, there’s something downright familiar about aliens, maybe because in most situations our conception of them remains rooted in our conception of ourselves: They look like us with pointy ears or a ribbed nose, or they don’t look like us, but they behave like us, with motivations and actions that are easily recognizable and understandable. One of Arrival’s greatest achievements is the way it makes alien seem alien again: Strange and inhuman and beyond the limits of our comprehension. It readjusts our thinking about what life on other worlds might be like. And in doing so, it also readjusts our thinking about what life on our world can be like.
In contrast to so many modern science-fiction films, Arrival isn’t set in outer space and contains no action sequences; director Denis Villeneuve is far less interested in explosions than expansions of consciousness. His hero isn’t a brave captain or a transforming robot; she’s a brilliant linguistics expert. Her name is Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a lonely college professor who observes the inexplicable arrival of 12 identical alien vessels on Earth with total detachment. The ships, sleek with no visible engines or windows, look like giant black contact lenses. They appear out of nowhere, and the locations of their landings have no apparent pattern. No one knows where they came from or what they want. Society, fearing the worst, teeters on the verge of total chaos.
A U.S. Army colonel named Weber (Forest Whitaker) arrives at Louise’s office and asks her to help decipher the aliens’ language. She refuses to take the assignment unless she can see the creatures in person. Reluctantly, Weber agrees. When she arrives in Montana to investigate, Louise is paired with Dr. Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a theoretical mathematician who will help her try to understand the creatures. Their first conversation doesn’t go smoothly. She believes language is the cornerstone of civilization. He believes science holds that title. It’s basically the nerdiest, least-cute meet cute in cinema history.
As he did in last year’s Sicario, Villeneuve uses an outsider point-of-view character to slowly build suspense as he draws her (and us) deeper into this mysterious new world. He doesn’t give us a full view of the alien ships until Louise sees one with her own eyes for the first time. He doesn’t reveal the life forms contained inside until she encounters them. Her first visit inside the alien craft is one of the longest and most effective sequences. Events almost transpire in real time; briefings, approaching the ship, traveling inside the one door that opens every 18 hours. Encountering the truly otherworldly conditions of the interior. And then: First contact.
It’s in your best interest to not know exactly what Louise and Ian find inside the vessel, or where their attempts to understand the alien language lead. All you need to know beforehand is that everything about Arrival is first-rate: The direction, the screenplay by Eric Heisserer (based on a story by Ted Chiang), the special effects involving the ship and its inhabitants, and the performances — most notably from Adams, who imbues Louise’s arc with the sort of deeply-felt emotions that rarely occur in intellectual science-fiction. Arrival is a smart film, but it’s not a cold or clinical one. Both the first and last scene brought me to the verge of tears.
Audiences will want to pick over the specifics of the plot — Arrival isn’t necessarily a puzzle, although it has some twisty elements — but it’s far more interesting to debate the questions it raises about humanity’s interconnectedness, the importance of communication, and the way we all perceive life on Earth. It’s a movie to see in a theater, both to admire Bradford Young’s gorgeous cinematography on a big screen, and so that when it’s over you have someone to talk to about what you’ve just experienced.
Arrival’s ending is something of an anticlimax; by the time the film arrives at its conclusion, Louise’s decisions are inevitable. (The movie also whiffs in a big way on the final scene between Renner and Adams; there’s one line of dialogue that no scientist — or human being — would ever say to another with a straight face.) But the journey Villeneuve takes the viewer on is as moving as it is thought-provoking. Louise’s ultimate revelation after her time with these aliens seems extraordinary, but it boils down to a very simple fact we all instinctively know: Someday, and perhaps someday very soon, we will die. There are things about life and death that are unknowable. We can spend what little time we have on this planet wrestling with that. Or we can spend it savoring every second.