Based on Ted Chiang’s short story Story of Your Life, this 2016 sci-fi drama follows linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) as she attempts to learn to communicate with aliens after they make first contact – before the rest of humanity can ignite an interstellar war.
Scientifically speaking, it’s a fascinating concept. Those familiar with the works of Ted Chiang aren’t likely to be surprised; he’s something of a master at painting pictures of just how broad the term “life” really is.
I knew practically nothing of Arrival before watching it, although I knew if it was anything like director Denis Villeneuve’s other films, I’d likely find a lot to enjoy about it.
Arrival is able to conjure the impression of action from the film’s methodical, scientific approach to linguistics – which is good, as there’s no real action to be seen. That’s not exactly a bad thing, though. Instead, Arrival is able to provoke thought and to challenge perceptions in the sort of deliberately gradual way that eases its viewers into revelations instead of slamming one big ol’ twist in the middle.
In fact, everything about Arrival‘s approach to its own storytelling was incredibly appealing to me – which makes it even stranger that I simply wasn’t overly excited by it. It was interesting, there’s no doubt about that, and it’s all remarkably cohesive (extra impressive, when you consider that it basically demands we try to perceive it outside of our human capabilities), but it just failed to grip me at any point.
Adams was spectacular as Banks, balancing the character’s scientific approach to research and her compassion in the most seamless of fashions, and even Jeremy Renner seemed fairly believable in his supporting role as physicist Ian Donnelly, but the only thing about any of the characters that resonated in any way was Banks’ relationship with her daughter, shown early in the film to die of cancer as a teen. It provided a strange, out-of-context tether between the viewer and Banks, and while it comes partly into focus by the film’s climax, the implications of the questions it raises are never answered, or even directly examined.
Ultimately, despite its thorough embrace of its high concept, and impressive cinematography and sound design, Arrival just wasn’t an experience I particularly enjoyed. I didn’t love it, but I certainly didn’t hate it. I appreciate the things it managed to do and they way in which it managed to do them, but it all felt hollow.
Also, as a fan of Ted Chiang’s work, I feel that it didn’t fully capture the sense of awe that the writer is able to inspire. A little odd, all things considered, but you might be better off reading the story – you’ll likely find it far more satisfactory, and capable of scratching the itch of existential sci-fi that Arrival can’t quite reach.
Summary: Arrival takes a great sci-fi concept (heavy on the science) and applies a level of Hollywood sheen to it – but ultimately, despite the excellent presentation and a solid performance from Amy Adams, there’s not a lot of substance to the finished product. It’s enjoyable, but it fails to achieve anything of note.