The typical alien movie plot goes something like this. Extraterrestrial ships show up on our planet, a little effort is made to communicate with the aliens, they turn out to be hostile, shit explodes, and some young hero makes a quip as he destroys the mothership/alien leader/whatever. Arrival asks the much more realistic question of what if we actually tried to learn to communicate with the aliens before things went boom? Amy Adams plays a linguist that is enlisted by the army in order to do just that.
Arrival has many themes, but at its core, it is a film about learning to communicate. It’s most akin to a long episode of the original Star Trek, but with an actual budget. The effects are great. They seamlessly blend into the world and don’t distract, which is what you want from a story that’s trying to convince you that we are being visited by other life forms. Remember how Maz Kanata (the yellow Yoda stand in) stood out so much in The Force Awakens because of how many practical effects were used? The CGI in Arrival never takes you out of the film, it only enhances it.
Even though this isn’t an action flick, that doesn’t mean there isn’t any tension. The film does a wonderful job of building a slow, ever present sense of danger throughout, with the audience knowing that one slip up could lead to utter disaster. It isn’t the feeling you get from watching Sigourney Weaver trek through an infested spaceship, but it is effective in its own right. This is helped by the excellent cinematography and score by Jóhann Jóhannsson (who also scored 2014’s superb The Theory of Everything).
My quibbles with Arrival are minor. Jeremey Renner seems slightly miscast as a man of science and there is a moment or two during the final act where things seem to happen for the purpose of getting the story where they need it to, not necessarily because it makes sense. In the age of big expensive action fests, it’s good to see a film that tries to entertain your mind first. With the success it has had, here’s hoping for more Arrival and less Independence Day.