For the past five decades or more, astronomers and conspiracy theorists alike have been looking for intelligent company among the distant stars. While the fringe theorists posit crop circles as evidence to possible extraterrestrial visitation, the enlightened lot headed by Carl Sagan and Frank Drake among others, have been making earnest, methodical efforts to reach out to unearthly beings.
Not to be left behind, Hollywood, too, has been envisaging its version of alien arrivals. When the real world efforts to reach out to the beings from planets distant from our own—from Golden Record and Cosmic Calls to the less scientific contact expeditions by Steven M. Greer—yielded less than encouraging results, the reel world has always managed to make contacts with extraterrestrial beings—some benign, others calamitous—that come visiting.
Helmed by Denis Villeneuve, who delivered back-to-back delights Prisoners, Enemy and Sicario, Arrival is one such intelligent tale of an alien visitation. Based on a novella, Story of Your Life by science fiction writer Ted Chiang, this part philosophical, part science-fiction flick is a welcome departure from the hoard of films that treat alien arrivals as perilous events with a do-gooder hero shouldering the task of saving the world (or the US to be precise).
When twelve spacecrafts land in different parts of the globe, the world goes into a frenzy. Top US military officer Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) ropes in linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and astrophysicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to decipher the apparent attempts by the visitors to communicate something to their earthly counterparts. Over the course of time, Banks and Donnelly and others like them in the countries where the aliens have landed, manage to interpret the complicated communication patterns of the seven-limbed beings and begin to understand the purpose of their visit.
The slow, almost meditative, pacing of the film suits the narrative. Unlike most films in this genre, Arrival takes its own time to unravel the purpose of the visitation while discussing in detail the two man-made realities—language and time—that help the 'feeble human intellect trying desperately to justify an existence that is without meaning or purpose' (thanks, Agent Smith) to make sense out of a chaotic world. The film attempts to undo the concept of time that is largely dependent on the setting of the sun and ticking of the clock, and presents an alternative idea of a time that flows mysteriously, in a non-linear manner.
Adams steals the show as the vulnerable Banks. The progression of her character is tad unconventional, but it all falls into place with the final reveal. Renner as the geeky astrophysicist is convincing while Whitaker doesn't have anything noteworthy to do as the government agent Weber.
With Bradford Young (Pawn Sacrifice, Selma) behind the camera, you are not to be blamed if you expect pure magic. Young lives upto his reputation by transporting you to the site where the spacecraft has landed in one long, aerial shot, making the location the aliens chose to land look almost surreal. The background score by Johann Johannsson perfectly fits the suspenseful tone of the film.
The thought that there are beings beyond us, that we are not the only ones lost in this vast universe and the distant possibility that the ones beyond us would one day come down to us, extending a hand (or limb if they are cephalopods) of friendship is indeed comforting. Until that day comes, let us regale in the reel realism of the likes of Arrival and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Forest Whitaker
Directed by: Denis Villeneuve