Movie Review: Arrival: A thinking man’s science fiction

What will you do if you can see your future? When you know the one thing that will give you immense happiness, will also cause you immense pain? Do you embrace the happiness or do you strive to change it knowing that it is futile? This is one of the many thought-provoking themes that run through the Amy Adams starred Arrival which has been nominated for eight Academy Awards this year, sadly neglecting to nominate Adams in a brilliant role essayed as Louise Banks, a world famous linguist.

In a world that is getting more xenophobic, it begs the question that why as human beings, do we condemn anything that is different from what our narrow minds consider as normal and familiar.

In the infinite universe, we are mere specks of dust, yet we refuse to entertain the possibility that we may not be unique. Whatever our mind doesn’t comprehend as familiar and known, we, as a human race perceive it as a threat.


The movie is directed by Denis Villeneuve, of the Incendies and Sicario fame. Named by the Variety magazine in 2011 as one of the filmmakers to watch out for, he has not disappointed in his first sci-fi venture. The movie has been adapted from a book by Ted Chiang, The Story of Your Life.

Science fiction as a genre has undergone a massive transformation. From the massive canvas which depicted “the Us vs. Them” grand battles (Independence Day, Cloverfield, Battle Los Angeles), to a level (The Martian, Interstellar, Gravity) where the battle is more personal, where the enemy is time and a hero is a single person. The canvas is still grand (as seen in Gravity or The Martian) however the focus is on humanity and what makes us human. How will we react to strangers in our backyard?

The story is often told from the viewpoint of one or a few protagonists so that the viewers can get involved in the emotions shared by them. It makes the story personal and gets the audience to empathize with their protagonist on screen (cue when Matt Damon grew food on Mars).

Arrival follows the same trend in being a thinking man’s science fiction, where Amy Adams as Louise Banks in a completely non-glamorous role as a linguist, ends up saving humanity.


The story begins with the arrival of twelve different space ships, simultaneously landing in twelve different countries. This causes an immense uproar and Louise is roped in by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to understand the language of aliens so as to understand if they come in peace or war. What we don’t understand terrifies us is aptly summed by the terse behavior of the colonel who wants quick replies to impossible questions.


Jeremy Renner as Ian Donnelly plays a cute physicist, far removed from his portrayal as Hawkeye from The Avengers. He is one-half of the star-crossed lovers as is slowly revealed in the story. Yet in his initial encounter with Louise, he comes across as a typical fallacious and stereotypical guy who thinks that science is the only God. However, he remains for most of the movie, a secondary character, which is good, considering that this movie doesn’t require anyone else excepting Adams to carry this movie on her shoulders.


The movie has several flashbacks, happiness suffused with bleakness, a dark future awaiting the protagonist where her only daughter dies because of melanoma in her teens. Yet if you catch the movie in between or take a long enough bathroom break, you would be hard pressed to understand if these events took place before or after the alien landings. The revelations are placed and paced in such a manner, that it will rivet you to your seats and yet won’t leave you scratching your head as it did in Inception.

The Aliens themselves look nothing spectacular. Their introduction is tense, a sense of dread enveloping us as it did in Cloverfield. Yet they turn out to resemble giant octopuses with hands that are named as Abbot and Costello.


Their communication is complex, a series of ink sprays like the Rorschach tests. Yet in those subtle inky impressions lies a tool or a weapon which might open the humanity’s eyes towards the fourth dimension which is Time. Yet as it happens that what we don’t understand, we brand it as our enemy.

What is a weapon and what is a tool? Is it a Gift or a declaration of war? These questions throw countries and governments across the world into chaos and yet Louise keeps working to understand these ink smears so that she can bring some semblance of order to the chaos enveloping the whole world.

The revelation at the end is stunning, it will leave you breathless and it ties the narrative together. The main theme of the movie is parental love that transcends all the dimensions, a theme revisited from an equally poetic Interstellar.

However, people looking for big bangs and spectacular computer generated imagery will be disappointed. That is not to say that the cinematography is lacking (the movie is nominated for the best cinematography) in the Oscars, however, the visual effects are not jaw dropping. This works in the favor of the movie since the focus remains on the lead artists. The movie tends to sag in the middle where apparently nothing seems to be happening for quite long.

Unlike Denis Villeneuve’s earlier movies, the movie tends to meander a little and especially how Louise works out the language of the aliens is a bit hazy. The plus point is the background score composed by the brilliant Johann Johannsson nominated both for BAFTA and the Golden Globes award.

Arrival is truly a wonderful cinematic experience where the triumph of humanity shines in the world rife with fear and suspicion.

Without being showy, it introduces a human element in the science fiction genre and makes the actor more important than the silly green screen. An Oscar buzz will do no harm to its box office prospects and yet it is sad to think that Amy Adams fails to get nominated in the Oscars for her role.

It’s a movie you should watch if you love character driven roles.

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