“Arrival” (2016): Communication Breakdown

Communication is key to our human understanding. It’s what serves as the backbone for how we find unity in trying times. Times where we’re unsure of how to process something unprecedented that affects all of us. In the case of  Arrival, that unprecedented event is first contact with an alien life form. This story of massive scale is mainly told through the eyes of Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguist working as a professor who is recruited by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to go to one of the many landing sites for these beings in Montana and learn  how to communicate with them. Along with physics professor Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), the two slowly build the smoke displayed language of these octopus type creatures, referred to as “heptapods.” Of course, given the other landing sites of these beings,  people around the world aren’t as willing to take a lengthy amount of time for communication to be bridged.  As tensions rise in countries like China and Russia who are ready to retaliate, Banks and Donnelly quickly attempt to solve this puzzle before humanity has its departure.


Director Denis Villeneuve – of Sicario and Prisoners  – elected to take more of a grounded genre bent for his latest  feature. Like his earlier entries, Villeneuve makes a sort of procedural about a larger human problem from one specific perspective. He excels at showing us the larger scope in a small scale point of view, particularly whenever our leads have to face against the sleek, ominous and intimidating presence of these creatures and their ship. As was evident in Enemy, Villeneuve likes his tall spider-like alien beings. The aliens here are ominous, but in a fashion that’s more from unclear awe rather than specific intimidation.  We get the idea that these people around these aliens are in over their heads and could easily fail at any moment. Which makes them more relatable, more human in the face of humbling odds.  Arrival  seeks to show human understanding of brethren different from their own and how often complicated a process that can be through trial and error.


Our protagonist Dr. Louise Banks  is an avatar for the confusion and loss of self in a scale as grand as an alien invasion. We see her crawling into bed watching the news, trying to get back to work to find no one else is around and mentally trying to make sense of what has transpired. That idea of being lost in the vastness of the universe was oddly precient considering the week Arrival  arrived, where many felt the same way on a more human level.  It’s a sort of human determination that’s brought to the rest of  Arrival  as  Banks tries to make the best of her opportunity to change history and communicate with alien life. Even when she’s filled with doubt and anxiety about how well she can achieve any of this, she gets back on the horse and tries even harder. If nothing else,  Arrival  is yet another  confirmation of Amy Adams as one of the stand out actresses of her generation. The quiet contemplation on her face says so much at any given moment.


It helps that she gets varying forms of encouragement and discordance from others around her. Jeremy Renner shows his usual restrained charm mixed with genuine awe and a desire to engage in the process of learning, both from these aliens and Adams’ character. Even if his role diminishes significantly both in quality and build up  as Arrival  goes on, Renner provides the much needed support beam for Adams as things fall apart… even if the end result of that ultimately leaves Renner as more of a specific plot purpose.  Forest Whitaker walks a fine line between  authoritative and understanding. As tension mounts outside of the Montana base, Whitaker knows accommodation is a necessary but finite resource. One that will leave our planet potentially in the dust. He and his staff – including Michael Stuhlbarg as a very fretful agent – are aware of the mounting tension outside of their sphere and can’t wait long for a miracle.


A miracle would definitely be welcome in the world of  Arrival. One that sort of comes… with the big reveal of the third act happens. I’m not going to spoil things here, especially since it’s kind of critical to a recurring element in the story from the start. However, as much as I was enjoying  Arrival  up to this point – it honestly was best of the year territory  – this reveal through my thoughts into the grinder and made brain flummox. It’s the type of reveal that puts so much of the previous elements into a new context, one that challenges our perceptions and looks to add a whole new outlook to those proceedings. Unfortunately, it also marginalizes all of the fantastic build up we had up to this point by turning directly away from the engaging high sci-fi concepts. So much of this focused around a person finding power in her ordinary actions against unforeseen mounting circumstances. Yet, this reveal pulls a 180 degree turn from this, with Adams achieving something insurmountable through such convenient action.  This twist enables Arrival  to turn from a story without simple answers to a story full of  massive shortcuts that hobbles actual character development, conflict resolution and genuine understanding between these aliens and humanity.


Then again, that’s obviously not the intent of  Arrival  screenwriter  Eric Heisserer, who horror fans would know all too well for his credits like the remake of  Nightmare on Elm Street,  The Thing  prequel and  Lights Out. Like all of those films, Arrival  has a noble intent that sort of gets lost in the conflicting ideas.  Clearly, this reveal was meant to give us  a  more personal perspective on the sci-fi conceit of these aliens’ perspective. That if we see our lives like they do, our sense of understanding could improve far beyond the mere reveal of language. Yet, in practice, this reveal ends up removing two key things; hard work and actual uncertainty. It boils down all of the potential intrigue to “eh, let’s just solve this with a neat little sci-fi concept that immediately shows where this story is going.” This is all despite Adams’ best efforts to get across the confusion and worry over what this reveal entails for her. Once again, it’s all very hard to talk about in detail, but the massive issue really is that once this comes into play there’s no suspense and it turns much of Adams’ biggest actions outside of her sphere into something easily solved, hinging itself to a moral quandary that ultimately fails to match up to the bigger sci-fi conceit.


Maybe  Arrival  has done a better job of communicating it’s ideas to others. It seems like it has and there’s plenty of engaging material here for everyone to latch onto, to the point where I can’t write off the film entirely. Hell, Amy Adams’ powerful work here is enough to save this from the massive disappointment the ending honestly deserves. From the perspective of the last week or so, communicating tolerance and problem solving against violence is incredibly refreshing. Even with that threat of violence, it’s coming from a place of relatable fear and worry about what the unknown could mean for us as human beings. However, when that alternative solution through embracing  these unknown folks means being gifted something for the sake of story convenience and a limp sentimental sacrifice, it feels like a disappointing conclusion that diminishes the larger scale.  I usually enjoy how Denis Villeneuve’s work takes that smaller perspective as a way of widening our view on a  situation, but  Arrival  doesn’t seem too concerned with that by it’s ending.  Instead of working towards legitimate communication through effort, we just find a  quick fix with a dose of sentimentality. That might appease many, but it left me far more cold than the filmmakers probably intended.

Rating 3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

Thomas Mariani
Thomas Mariani is a born geek, with a bit of nerd mixed in here & there. A native of the (less) swampy parts of Florida, Thomas has always been a fan of films, television & other sources of media ever since he was a child, having been raised on Jim Henson, Star Wars and the basic cable cartoons of the ’90s & ’00s.

Some of his favorite horror films include Evil Dead II, Poltergeist and An American Werewolf in London. He already has experience writing and podcasting about pop culture, which you can read/listen to on sites like www.oneofus.net, www.horrornews.net or even on twitter as @NotTheWhosTommy.