In a time where sci-fi movie normally means that we took an action movie and turned the bad guys into aliens and replaced modern weapons with laser guns it is rare to see a smart sci-fi movie turn up. Sure they do now and then but most of what we are given as sci-fi is just a different flavor of action. Luckily for us one of the good ones has landed. Amy Adams leads the ‘Arrival’ and it may just be the smartest sci-fi movie to grace the screen in years.
In the movie alien vessels arrive at Earth and are hovering at what seems to be random intervals across the planet. Not coming out to enslave mankind, not firing death rays, not sharing new technologies, just hovering. Of course the governments of the world are frantic in their attempt to determine just what the meaning of this is. Are they hostile and waiting to attack? Are they peaceful and want to share knowledge? Is this merely a pit stop on a galactic road trip? They quickly come to a question that has plagued scientists for years. If we do make contact with intelligent life, how do we communicate?
In the movie that job goes to Amy Adams’ Dr. Louise Banks. She is a linguist and is tasked with determining a way to communicate with the aliens. However it is clear that she is out of her depth, just as anyone would be when faced with a problem so very, well, alien to their normal studies. But to bring up the tension the fate of the world and all mankind might just hang in the balance.
The story may be set in the slight future but it does what good sci-fi always has a way of doing. Making you think that it could be the here and now, showing off its timeless feel. And to illustrate the point a bit more, this wasn’t a story written just before they started shooting, it is based on an award winning story called Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang, it was published all the way back in 1998.
While we will leave the plot to unfold for you when you go out and see this movie (trust us, you want to go see it) there are plenty of other elements to consider and discuss. For a movie about aliens coming to Earth the pacing is rather slow. Don’t get us wrong, this isn’t a problem in the least. It also doesn’t waste any of its time giving your more exposition and back story then you need. You can tell that this is a film in which director Denis Villeneuve (who you might remember from such movies as Prisoners and Sicario) had a very precise story to tell and didn’t waste time with giving away anything before its time. As you watch it you will feel like you are putting together a puzzle and not seeing what it should be of. That is until it suddenly comes clearly into view and you understand how it all fits together.
A strong indication of whether or not a movie, book or play is good or just a passing entertainment is to find out if it asks any questions, does it send you off with something to consider other than the trivial who had the best costume and which fight sequence was the coolest. Arrival does that, and leaves you with quite a few questions.
The first of which would be just how much does our language shade how we perceive our world and force us to interact with it? Do we really see a color for example if we don’t have a word in our mind to describe that color? And that of course leads to the next question. If we do some how come across a lifeform so different than our own, how we will even go about trying to communicate? What can we use as a common basis with which to build a language upon.
Arrival is a smart and well crafted movie. It will grip you to the screen and keep you enthralled with what is happening. And then when it is all over you’ll leave first thinking that while it doesn’t need it, you wouldn’t have minded if the movie were 20 or so minutes longer. Then you will start pondering those questions.