I’m so glad a friend who wanted to see it it invited me along or I would surely have overlooked this gem.
In Arrival, lonely linguistics professor Louise gets called in by the top army brass alongside your more typical math/physics guy to try to figure out how to communicate with the aliens in one of twelve lens-shaped black ships hovering over different parts of the world (the answer: coffee rings!), but the clock is ticking because the win/lose approach favored by the Chinese (and by some rogue American soldiers, for that matter) could result in catastrophic alien retaliation.
Arrival is not very actiony; there’s a lot of quiet drama in with the sci-fi. There are a couple of nice themes, but nothing overbearing. The film never even gets near the “hold hands and sing kum ba yah” cliche, which I perhaps was dreading. The black lenses recall Arthur C. Clarke’s monoliths, but that’s the only similarity Arrival has with 2001:A Space Odyssey. Nor did it have the nonsensical transcendent mystery of Close Encounters. Nor was it anything like Independence Day (1995). The movies it’s being compared to are all movies I haven’t yet seen (Gravity, Interstellar, The Martian).
The movie has been described as “sophisticated”, “intellectual”, “thoughtful”, “pensive”, and “cerebral”. That’s great. Quibble how you will about inaccuracies in the depiction of linguistics, the fact that Hollywood deigns to depict a linguist at all is nice.
I further approve of this movie because it didn’t announce that it has a heroine (rather than a hero). Arrival contains absolutely no obtrusive feminist rhetoric, spunky, defensive or otherwise. There’s just a likable woman smack at the center of the story. The heroine is played by Amy Adams, seen ten years ago in Disney’s Enchanted. The male scientist (played by Jeremy Renner, Marvel’s Hawkeye) for all his supposed skills, is just along for the ride.
It’s a wild ride, difficult to describe without giving the game away, somewhat like Predestination (2014). I’m also reminded of The Three-Body Problem, which also dramatizes the effect of aliens on humanity.
Since the not-fictional Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is part of the backdrop of the movie, I would like to point out that learning a new language—learning anything—does change your brain, but not like science fiction (or even the real Sapir and Whorf) would have you believe.
Keep reading for a detailed plot summary with SPOILERS in the form of a beat sheet in the style described in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.
Also see below for a brief comparison of the movie and the short story it was based on.