After alien vessels land at 12 spots around the globe, the U.S. Army conscripts renowned linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and transports her to rural Montana, where one of the vessels is parked. There, she is tasked with finding a way to communicate with the aliens to determine why they are here.
The aliens — giant squid-like creatures who make noise — are open to a dialogue, allowing Banks and others to enter the spaceship and begin the slow, unsexy work of developing a method of communication. Meanwhile, a clock ticks as American, Chinese and Russian militaries edge closer to acting with force.
It all rests on the creation of a shared language: You can’t just ask a seemingly simply question like “what is your purpose on Earth?” if the other party doesn’t even comprehend the concept of an interrogative. (China uses mah jongg to communicate with the aliens, but Banks is dismayed: A game encourages winners and losers, not cooperation.) Banks discovers that the aliens have a written language, albeit one whose structure differs significantly — and intriguingly — from our own.
Villeneuve employs a measured and sober style, slowly revealing the stories of the aliens and Banks. Adams quietly carries the film; Banks is our conduit to the intrigue, anxiety and wonder of communicating with aliens. And yet beneath her steady competence is vulnerability, which we see only in flashbacks to time spent with her young daughter.
Arrival’s timing is fortuitous, landing the very week we got schooled in how folks across the U.S. (and by extension, the world) aren’t communicating with one another very well. The film doesn’t offer any easy solution — and we can’t wait for actual aliens to give us a nudge — but it reminds us that we are capable of at least trying to bridge seemingly insurmountable chasms. But it takes thoughtfulness and persistence, and can’t be as immediately satisfying as blowing something up.