When it comes to dealing with moral and philosophical issues that impact our humanity and our belief systems, science fiction literature offers a wonderful platform for creative engagement. Unfortunately, thoughtful science fiction films are few and far between. Arrival, starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Forest Whitaker, is one of the few and is worth seeing.
Writing about this film is difficult, because it is would be easy to share spoilers that would, well, spoil the film for you. There is a significant twist that is interwoven throughout the film and, I have to admit, someone had to explain it to me.
The protagonist of the story is Dr. Louise Banks, a linguist who is enlisted by the military to interpret the language of a crew of an alien craft that has landed (actually, it never touches the ground) in Montana. There are twelve of these craft all over the world. Various governments are working to discover how to communicate with the aliens. Initially cooperative among themselves, this cooperation between nations is endangered by distrust and fear.
There are some interesting themes in the film but two that are especially important right now are learning how to communicate with the “other” and cooperating across international borders for the good of humanity. Perhaps those themes are two sides of the same coin. The aliens are extremely “other,” but the greatest conflicts occur with those of our own kind. Louise models a desire to first understand and then to be understood.
Little more can be said without spoiling your enjoyment of the film. Director Denis Villeneuve creates a claustrophobic and almost dream-like atmosphere which increases the tension of this close encounter. Adams and Renner are two of my favorite current actors, but Adams steals the show as the smart, intense, but vulnerable central character. If you miss Arrival in a theater, catch in on DVD or streaming video.