Upcoming science fiction movie Arrival is as far from your average alien blockbuster as it gets.
You will not find flashing lasers, wailing UFOs, or anthropomorphic life forms in this tale of extraterrestrials making first contact with Earth. Instead of the military taking the lead in a bloody battle between man and alien, the heroes use one of humanity’s most potent weapons — communication — to fight for peace.
And for once, the action is led by a woman: Dr Louise Banks, played sensitively by five-time Oscar nominee Amy Adams.
In director Denis Villeneuve’s dazzling new science fiction thriller, the action starts when 12 alien spacecrafts land on Earth, scattered across different countries. Panic ensues and rises rapidly, and the planet soon teeters on World War III.
Linguistics professor Louise is the last person who expects to be recruited by an elite military team, led by US Army Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) and physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), to deal with the extraterrestrials.
Her mission? To ask the aliens one very simple question: “What do you want?”
The story revolves around this central question, and the impossible psychological journey Louise takes to communicate with the aliens. Pushing the boundaries of language in search of the answer, she also becomes an unwitting instrument in an escalating geopolitical conflict.
The crucial ‘moment of truth’ in every alien movie is the first reveal of the extraterrestrials themselves.
In this, Arrival challenges convention — and it does not disappoint. The seven-limbed aliens, called heptapods, recall Earth’s own tentacled deep-sea creatures, like giant squid and mysterious jellyfish, a similarity that lends a note of unsettling plausibility.
Most fascinating of all is their language of inky circular symbols, ‘written’ with their tentacles on a misty screen separating them from the humans. As you learn the rudiments of the heptapods’ language alongside Louise, the film feels more science than fiction.
Even if you do not believe in aliens, the realism of Arrival’s portrayal has a gravitational pull that makes you wonder: What if?
Stripped of its can’t-look-away aliens and edge-of-your-seat action, Arrival is, at its heart, a character-driven drama.
The understated Louise is first introduced to us as a woman mourning the loss of her young daughter.
Too often, a dead family member is added to a character’s backstory in a feeble attempt to beef up lacklustre character development. But in Arrival, her pain plays out beautifully as her personal struggle is heartbreakingly interwoven with the bigger conflicts at hand.
In spite of all this, Louise displays a quiet courage as she puts her life in danger and faces the alien mystery head on. You find yourself rooting for her as her relationship with Ian blossoms into a sedate, yet powerful, bond.
Portraying a bereaved mother and heroine who saves the world is a delicate balancing act but Adams pulls it off without veering into cliché. It is no wonder that she snagged a Golden Globes nomination for Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama, and movie critics are anticipating another nomination for her at the Oscars.
Together with the brilliant acting, Arrival’s creative direction and stunning cinematography have earned the film a huge round of applause from audiences and critics. It received 10 nominations at the 2016 Critics’ Choice Awards and garnered strong reviews at all the festivals it has premiered at.
Of special note is its shocking plot twist, which has inspired a slew of commentary by critics and writers.
The director’s decision to eschew the usual ‘war against aliens’ route, and instead articulate deep truths about language, understanding and humanity, has also won the hearts of many.
In light of recent political turbulence all around the world — exemplified by the explosive US elections — critics have lauded Arrival as a sort of morality tale for our times. Its message, after all, is to put away the weapons and communicate.
If it is possible to bridge the divide between aliens and humans, then maybe there is hope for humanity after all.
Arrival opens in cinemas on Jan 12.