One moment is all it takes to change our lives, to define a species. Director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario, Enemy, Prisoners) presents this moment with a profound silence uncharacteristic of science fiction. No great battle, no chaos or destruction, just the arrival. Sometimes the most terrifying action is nothing at all.
The film opens to Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a distinguished linguist traveling to work as a lecturer at the University of Montana. All around her people scramble to see screens displaying news although Banks continues to her lecture hall unaware. Almost immediately after beginning the lecture a phone goes off, then another. The world has just changed, the scale of the change however, is hidden for a few more seconds.
After tentively switching a news channel on, they learn of a mysterious object in rural Montana, massive in size and visible for miles around floating just metres from the ground. Speculation suggests an experimental military ship until more objects are found across the world, 12 in total. Villeneuve plants the audience into his world, desperate for any sliver of information but before any possible understanding can form an alarm rings around the lecture hall. The whole state is on lockdown while governments across the world scramble to figure out what is going on. As Banks enters the parking lot we see people rushing to get back to family and jets flying overhead, in a deafening array of sound.
The next day by contrast is eerily quiet, Banks travels to work as usual although it soon becomes apparent that she’s the only one. Here she is approached by Colonel Weber (Forrest Whitaker) to join a military task force at the landing site. Working alongside a theoretical physicist, Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), they must not only establish the methods of communication with the unknown visitors, but decipher it and be able to communicate back. Some nations faced with a landing do not have peace as the primary objective on their agenda. China and Russia mobilise their respective armies to defend the populous from an expected invasion and it becomes a race against time to avert war with potentially peaceful extraterrestrials. Chaos is a persistent threat illustrated through widespread rioting and looting by people under the impression that the end of times is upon them.
Every few hours Banks and Donnelly travel to the bottom of the spaceship from a makeshift base nearby. Cinematographer Bradford Young (Selma, A Most Violent Year) achieves an almost tangible level of anticipation as the sheer scale of the pebble shaped ship is slowly revealed to us. This feeling is very shortly dwarfed in the sequence following as the team make their way inside. For all the advanced technology of both alien and human design depicted, there was a certain irony in using a scissor lift to bridge the gap between the 2 civilisations. When the aliens are eventually revealed, dubbed heptopods for their 7 legs, Banks is unable to make sense of their whale like cries. With the relations of world nations seeming to crumble around them, failure is not an option and upon seeing words and sentences in a visual form and not noise, a deeply complex and beautiful written language is revealed. The further she plunges into this language, the more her reality begins to shift and in doing so changes the fate of her world.
The climax of Arrival is both staggering and satisfying as several confusing elements from early on suddenly become crystal clear. With fabulous cinematography accompanied by a soul-stirring score by Jóhann Jóhannsson, this is truly a first contact film like no other. Villeneuve delivers a poignant message underlining the utter necessity of communication that transcends the screen and resonates beyond.