Arrival is Independence Day, with a brain.
Yes, I realize that's a reductive assessment, but it's tough to overlook how both movies approach the shared concept of "first contact by an alien race" from totally different roads. Where tentpole filmmaker Roland Emmerich once placed noisy partygoers on the top of a Los Angeles skyscraper holding homemade welcome signs written on cardboard, smart and sophisticated Denis Villeneuve carefully constructs an intelligent, engrossing and extraordinary examination of language and communication between foreigners. In one, blockbuster supertstar Will Smith punches an alien in the face and screams, "Welcome to Earth." In the other, Amy Adams diagrams sentences and argues the true definition of the term "weapon," while the armies of the world brace for possible conflict.
Believe me when I tell you the latter scenario presented in Arrival is far more tense and exhilarating than anything Emmerich attempted back in 1996 (and especially earlier this summer in the flimsy laugher Independence Day: Resurgence).
The less you know about Denis Villeneuve's Arrival going in, the better, but I'll give you the barebones summary to help determine if you should see it. (Answer: You should, at all costs.) Unexpectedly, 12 alien spacecraft enter our atmosphere and touch down -- hover, actually -- over a dozen locations on our planet. The military forces of the world tip toe toward panic mode, but before anyone acts with malice, they initiate avenues of contact and communication. Our government brings in two specialists: Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguistics instructor who specializes in rare translations; and Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a mathematician who deconstructs communication issues the way normal people solve numerical equations.
The duo immediately is transported to a base camp near one of the ships where they learn that, every 18 hours, a door to the craft opens and an exploratory team is permitted to enter. Once inside, Louise and Ian are ordered to break down the communication barriers that exist between us and the two alien representatives tasked with "meeting" us every day (Ian gives them the nicknames Abbott and Costello). From there, Arrival becomes a taut, apprehensive, invigorating and rewarding race to establish a proper shared language... before the Emmerich-loving military forces of the world (personified, in this surprisingly personal sci-fi drama, by the grounded and serious Forest Whitaker) start launching nukes at our extraterrestrial visitors.
Like the best examples of science-fiction, dating back to the earliest examples of stories in the genre, Arrival says as much about what is happening in our current global-political environment as it does about what could happen if we don't learn from a few of this movie's messages. Villeneuve announced his presence as a complicated and challenging storyteller by delivering smart and difficult dramas like Prisoners and Sicario. Here, he argues that in our tense and trigger-happy world, we rarely take the time to clarify intent before we act. Not just on a national level, but also in our own personal relationships. And how many conflicts, both massive and miniscule, could be avoided -- politically, religiously and socially -- if the parties involved paused long enough to discuss a supposed problem, particularly if it springs from a miscommunication?
Deeper messages aside, Arrival deserves our attention for being one of the best-paced, expertly shot and awe-inspiring sci-fi dramas to arrive in theaters in quite some time. While modern audiences have grown accustomed to witnessing large-screen spectacle, Arrival wisely stops and lingers on the genuine human reactions to such extraterrestrial grandiosity, to the possible arrival of an alien race. Villeneueve lingers on Adams and Renner as they arrive at the first ship, barely able to mentally process what they are looking at, and actually touching. How mind blowing would it be to be able to place your hand on a ship that was crafted somewhere millions of miles away? Arrival considers that, and it's pulse-racingly brilliant.
Arrival, through some incredible performances by Adams, Renner and Whitaker, wants you to process the psychological effect that first contact would have on humanity. It asks how we'd respond, then gives us answers we may not like. But the movie containing those answers? I think you are going to like it a lot.