Arrival: Science Fiction with a Difference

– Cameron Ironside

Arrival is a science fiction film with a difference. The unusual story is about first contact with alien beings — a kind of Close Encounters of the Third Kind meets Back to the Future 2. When twelve alien ships land in different locations around the globe, linguistics expert, Dr Louise Banks (Amy Adams), is hired to communicate with the visitors. Arrival is minimal in special effects and low on action for a big budget film.

Creating a successful time-travel film is always difficult. Simpler is usually better. Arrival is intended as a cerebral film — an alien time-travel puzzle — but it’s the spurts of emotional appeal that have the most potency. A tone of apprehension pervades the film, as alien ships hover menacingly above the earth. The aliens amplify fear and mistrust between the different races of earth by offering them weapons. The sparse musical score adds to the tense atmosphere, but at times is also jarring. It is a tense, well-directed mystery-drama that falls into the trap of tricking itself through time-travel silliness.

For all the film’s focus on alien language and its floating monolithic structures (yes, think 2001: A Space Odyssey), Arrival is a film that says more about the human race and how we deal with adversity. Do we group together, or go it alone? This is reflected in both how the different nations deal with the shock of the aliens’ arrival, as well as the personal story of Dr Banks. Adams delivers a strong performance that holds the audience’s attention through a screenplay that becomes increasingly fragmented.

maxresdefaultThe audience is invited to engage with the alien language, but there’s not much pay off. For a film that centres on aliens, this is surprisingly one of the least successful things about the film. There’s a love story too but it’s so subtle you might miss it. Instead, the reward for the audience largely takes place in Banks’ personal journey, the exposition of which occurs through a time-travelling paradox. The ending is both fulfilling and contentious – it doesn’t completely make sense and yet it does. Some will love the ending while others will leave the theatre wondering, ‘what just happened?’

Arrival is a thinking-person’s science fiction film that requires a leap of faith. If you are expecting an Independence Day style war with aliens, you’ll leave disappointed. There is a lot of tension, but without much violence. The film is about patience, courage and resolving conflicts through communication. It’s slow-moving and the ending is something of a muddle. But Arrival isn’t really about the aliens or their language — they are largely a distraction. It’s about Dr Banks’ personal journey with her daughter. It may be sold as a film about aliens arriving on earth, but it’s a film that places the human condition squarely in the spotlight. And for those reasons, despite its flaws, it’s a film worth watching.

Photo credits: Pulse Radio, Fresh Movie Trailers, YouTube

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