If aliens suddenly arrived, how would we talk to them? Most movies ignore the question by making the aliens invaders who immediately start blowing up earth cities. No need to talk. Others glide around the question by having the aliens arrive speaking English saying they learned it by listening to our broadcasts or else they have mental telepathy.
Arrival plunges straight into the question.
Twelve spaceships arrive on earth and then do nothing. They don’t attack but neither do they show themselves to make speeches about bringing peace. The twelve ships are scattered around the earth. One of the strengths of the movie is that the different countries react in different ways. The United States, in the person of Forest Whitaker, takes a sensible approach. He’s a colonel whose task is to find a way to communicate as fast as possible so we’ll know what we’re facing.
He sensibly looks up a top linguist, Amy Adams plus a physicist, Jeremy Renner. She wants to learn the language. He thinks they can use math for common ground.
This makes for a very tense first half of the movie. The task is impossible to do in a short time but they only have a short time until somebody, somewhere will launch an attack on the spaceships. The results might drive them away or drive them to retaliate. We don’t know and the clock is ticking.
To complicate things even more, when we eventually see the aliens, they are truly alien. They are not even remotely humanoid but more like what you might get if you crossed an octopus with an elephant and maybe a few other species. It is wonderful to finally see aliens portrayed as truly strange.
This is the most intelligent and gripping science fiction movie ever made, at least for the first half. It’s all the struggle to find some sort of common ground. To add to the tension, the linguist keeps having flashbacks to a personal tragedy.
The second half of the movie is very good but not at the level of the first. The problem is that the language problem has to be solved quickly. Realistically, you would have to jump ahead 50 years with the happy announcement that there’s finally been a breakthrough. Instead, for the movie to work as a movie, communication has to be established within a few weeks. After that, there are some plot complications with people who seriously want to attack the aliens. Then the alien communication gets very strange and then there’s a major plot twist.
I won’t give it away. I’ll just say I discovered several websites devoted to explaining the plot twist since it’s very complicated.
All in all, a superb movie whose flaws are minor compared to how much it does right.
I was unfamiliar with the work of Ted Chiang. On looking him up, I discovered he writes very slowly. His output is small but nearly everything he publishes wins an award. He has won every major science fiction award.
Reviewed by Marian Powell