With “Arrival,” director Denis Villeneuve takes a very familiar alien invasion scenario and tries to put a new twist on it. While everyone from H. G. Wells in “War of the Worlds” to Roland Emmerich in “Independence Day” has envisioned a swarm of spacecraft attacking us, Villeneuve imagines what would happen if the aliens landed and just chilled. How would humanity respond? With fear, suspicion and weapons? Or with an attempt at communication and understanding?
Called “Message” in Japan, “Arrival” is set in a future that could be tomorrow or next month, in which the world wakes up one day and turns on the news to learn that 12 massive monolith-like spacecraft have landed on the planet. Governments cordon off the sites, people panic and speculation runs wild, but the spacecraft just sit there. Military intelligence in the United States, personified by Col. Weber (Forest Whitaker), recruits a small team to attempt to figure out what the aliens want, led by linguistics professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner). Clad in hazmat suits, they are given access to the spacecraft, inside which there is a secure room where the aliens show up to interact with their human hosts.
Without giving too much away, let’s just say they don’t speak English, and humans have no idea what to make of their language, which sounds like a blend of dubstep wobble, distorted whale songs and insect clicks. Louise gets the bright idea of trying to communicate visually, by writing her name on a whiteboard, to which the aliens respond by making ink-like swirls that coalesce into complex glyphs. The academics slowly start to crack the code, but will they get it done before China or some other trigger-happy country decides to nuke the new arrivals?
How much you enjoy this film will depend greatly on how content you are to massively suspend your disbelief. One of the perils of near-future sci-fi is the need to keep things plausible, and the idea that humans could quickly solve an alien language when we have yet to succeed in communicating with other species of our own world, like whales or birds, seems highly improbable.
In fact, shortly after watching “Arrival,” I heard astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson on a podcast making exactly that point: “We’re not the measure of intelligence in the universe,” he said. “Who decided that? We did.” The limitations of human physiology prevent us from even knowing how much we don’t know. For a film that has scientists as its heroes, “Arrival” nevertheless is stuck in the groove of human solipsism.
Yet on this boneheaded pretense, “Arrival” flows along, its soporific pace, repetitiveness and jumbled flashback structure suggesting some sort of philosophical depth that just never arrives. Adams turns in what is easily the worst performance of her career, wearing a perpetual look of dazed bewilderment.
Like “Contact” and “Interstellar” before it, “Arrival” conflates inner and outer space, where contact with alien intelligence is the balm that heals one’s own psychic wounds, a cosmic Oprah Winfrey delivering closure. When Louise staggers out of the spacecraft, blown away by an ecstatic encounter with an advanced alien life form, the first thing she says is “I just realized why my ex-husband left me.” The moment becomes laughable; but maybe for a selfie-obsessed society, even a close encounter is “all about me.”