If we are taking about space and scifi we must also talk about aliens coming to Earth. There are a million movies of aliens visiting Earth, getting stranded here, living among us or coming over to conquer our planet – famous examples include E.T., Men in Black or Independence Day, which are all must-see-movies in their own rights. But the most intense and thought-provoking movie about aliens landing on Earth that I have ever seen is without a doubt Arrival.
The 2016 film by Denis Villeneuve was nominated for eight Oscars including Best Picture and took home one for Best Sound Editing. It stars Amy Adams – who got nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Actress for her role – and Jeremy Renner, who I of course know as Marvel’s Hawkeye.
As always, here is a very quick list of bullet points but you should really read the whole thing because they don’t do the movie justice:
- A realistic alien encounter – the realism makes it so thrilling
- Thought-provoking piece about communication
- The threat of the not-understandable is more intense than a big battle would be
- Best Picture Oscar nominated for a reason
The plot begins when 12 alien ships descend around the world, hovering just above the ground in the US, Russia, China and nine other countries like giant eggs. The action centers mostly around the US-based ship in Montana, where the army enlists the help of linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to figure out the aliens’ language. At this point, the army has already explored and made their way into the immobile ships hanging in the air, finding just an empty room with a semi-see through glass-like wall that divides the area where people can enter from the rest of ship. Behind the divider live two gigantic, vaguely squid like aliens. They use an inky liquid to project complex circular patterns on the dividing glass, which Banks is supposed to make sense of.
The process is slow and frustrating and the messages that are unearthed are worrying for government officials and army alike, so tension run high. And as the exact same efforts are being made by specialists and governments in twelve countries simultaneously, it develops into a global crisis when Russia and China break off from the team effort because their translations come out as threatening.
This is as much of the plot as you are going to get from me, because anything else is so interwoven that I would have to spoil it all. The point of this movie is, that is neither a cute alien encounter where aliens magically speak English nor an all-out shooting fest where Earth has to be defended guns blazing. It is much calmer and more realistic than that and thus much more terrifying. The aliens are truly alien in nature – with seven legs, no faces, a color based language. But much more terrifying than that, the humans are just so human. There are not only different approaches and assessments on a personal scale but also the overarching construct of global politics, with all its cultural differences and historical backgrounds. Banks’ work is doubted by US-government officials, the strategy of trying to communicate has to be approved by twelve different governments and the interpretations of just one or two of these countries could not only end this chance but also potentially invite malicious counterstrikes by the aliens.
And at the base of it all is my favorite topic: communication. The need to communicate and to tell stories is so inherently human that it makes complete sense that communication and a common language would be higher up in priority than just blasting the aliens to pieces. It is human to be curious, to want to know more, to want to understand more and to be afraid of what and who we cannot understand.
This movie keeps you on the edge of your seat without much action or noise but with the thrill of the unknown and the glimpse into two fields that most of us never experience for themselves: scientific field research of alien magnitude and global politics in direct contact and under extreme duress. Of course, there are some more sci-fi concepts that are addressed because the aliens work in such a different way and of course there is a Hollywood love story in the margins, but that is all just embellishment.
While I love this movie for the concepts and main plot, I also really appreciated the no-nonsense, quite realistic visuals – the army looked like the army, the aliens went without decorum and Amy Adams hair was not always perfectly combed. I still don’t quite understand what the Donnelly character was really needed for – as in, why would the army need to hire him exactly – but it gave Adams something to play off I guess and I do love a brooding Jeremy Renner in a corner.
This movie deserves all the attention and is a great example of how scifi and other more fantastical genres can deliver very thought-provoking concepts. If you are intrigued, watch the trailer here.