The first thing that strikes you about Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival is the understated way in which it treats the aliens-visiting-earth scenario. There are no scenes with citizens gaping at the sky with a mix of fear and wonder, no end-of-the-world global mass hysteria broadcast on news channels. There’s a bureaucratic coldness to the proceedings. Twelve spaceships have landed in 12 different parts of the world, including the US, Russia, China, Pakistan and Sudan. But neither of the parties launch an attack; instead, like two nations in a strained relationship, they try to communicate with each other.
All this is the muted background in a movie whose focus is Dr Louis Banks (Amy Adams), a linguist who’s tasked with translating alien communications and answering the vital question: what is the purpose of their visit? Banks not only comes with a vast knowledge of language but with heavy emotional baggage. She is seeking answers of her own.
Many movies dealing with space, including Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar not so long ago, have suggested an intimate connection between the personal and the cosmic, and offer this as the key to solving big existential riddles. Arrival magnifies that link. Its look and feel are so far removed from movies featuring aliens, who are either portrayed as goofy friends or vicious, unintelligible creatures who want to wipe out mankind, that it helps to see them through Banks’ empathetic eyes. When Banks and her partners walk toward the seven-limbed heptapods for the first time, a breathtakingly filmed scene that’s perfectly balanced between what we can and can’t see, it isn’t dread that we feel. There’s a sense of hope because we know that she has the ability to engage with the aliens.
For far too long, Hollywood blockbusters have waged war against the extra terrestrial, using it as the perfect excuse to unite a fragmented world. Arrival challenges that notion and asks us to look within.