Editor’s Notes: Arrival will be out on in its respective home video format February 14th.
Arrival (Paramount Home Entertainment) draws upon a popular theme of science fiction — attempting to communicate with beings from beyond our world. Without warning, twelve huge oval-shaped ships arrive on earth and position themselves in locations across the globe. Because the purpose of these visitors is unknown, leaders of nations come together to pool their resources to determine how to react. A key to understanding is learning the language, deciphering it, and making efforts to communicate. The U.S government enlists brilliant linguistics expert/translator Dr. Louise Brooks (Amy Adams) along with theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and sends them to Montana, the site of one of the landings, to better comprehend the aliens and the purpose of their mission. They are under the command of Col. Weber (Forest Whitaker), who pushes them into an ever-shortening window of time.
The reaction to the aliens varies. Weber and the military fear the worst and are especially unsettled by China’s threat to undermine the harmonious coordination of nations. The scientists are more cautious and adopt a diplomatic approach, working around the clock to understand the odd circular images used by the aliens to communicate.
The aliens are “heptopods,” massive creatures that resemble octopuses walking upright. From a single tentacle spouts an inky fluid that forms itself into circular hieroglyphs. Through trial and error, Louise and her team start to decode the heptopods’ symbols into basic language.
The film is fairly low-key for a movie about outer-space visitors. This isn’t a shoot ‘em up, as in Independence Day or War of the Worlds. In style, it most closely resembles Close Encounters of the Third Kind, in which most of the film is devoted to the drama of learning to communicate. While Close Encounters… is fairly straightforward as it chronicles serious efforts to get through to the aliens, Arrival focuses more on the metaphysical as Louise, grieving the death of her 12-year-old daughter Hannah, experiences memory flashbacks to her relationship with Hannah as she was growing up. These occur with increasing frequency as she attempts to understand what the visitors want.
Director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario) has fashioned a cerebral science fiction movie, with considerable emphasis on the importance of science in understanding beings from another world. A key point is made about the imperfection of translation and how slight shadings of meaning can alter intent. One translated word in particular sets the Chinese to abandon worldwide cooperation in favor of a nationalistic defense posture.
Ms. Adams is effective as a woman haunted by sadness as she perseveres in her task, even as the patience of those in charge are stretched thin. Louise dominates the film, and the movie is more about her than the creatures she’s attempting to understand. Ms. Adams conveys both intelligence and the look of a wounded bird, an odd balance that makes Louise more complex than traditional movie scientist types.
Mr. Renner’s character is more generic than that of Louise. His primary purpose is expositional, and as a sounding board for ideas about how to proceed in getting through to the aliens.
Rated PG-13, Arrival sometimes bogs down with academic language and its single primary location doesn’t give the film much visual variety. When the mission of the aliens is finally revealed, it inspires more head scratching than awe, but the overall journey takes the viewer on a road seldom traversed by sci-fi pictures.
Bonus extras on the Blu-ray release include the featurettes “Xenolinguistics: Understanding Arrival,” “Acoustic Signatures: The Sound Design,” “Eternal Recurrence: The Score,” “Nonlinear Thinking: The Editorial Process,” and “Principles of Time, Memory & Language.” A digital HD copy is enclosed.