Film Review: Arrival (2016)

What would you do if the government knocked on your door and asked you to translate an alien language? Because that is just what happens to linguist Dr Louise Banks (Amy Adams) in the latest Villenevue film The Arrival also called The Story of Your Life. Twelve mysterious spacecrafts are hovering in twelve different locations. With no knowledge of how they got here, or perhaps more importantly, what they are saying, Dr Louise Banks (Adams) and theoretical physicist Dr Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) are drafted in to answer the questions. With the world on the brink of declaring war, Banks and her team have to race against time to work out why these aliens are here.

I won’t lie, I went to see this film because I am a linguistics student and I was curious about how Hollywood would portray a translation theme and also because Amy Adams. Amy Adams is linguist Dr Louise Banks. She isn’t happy go lucky with Giselle-like optimism, she looks tired. She is real. And the representation of science seems pretty real to me as well. As she can’t learn the alien’s verbal language, Banks tries to learn their writing pattern – a squid like ink in the mist forming circular “sentences”. They start small, “human”, “Louise”, “Ian” – with Ian naming the two aliens as they cannot pronounce the names in the alien’s language. They build up a vocabulary over time, understanding, using, checking context before moving on. It happens over weeks, with the interim between the first few sessions and the later ones being narrated by Donnelly telling us all how amazing Banks is.


The core of the film is about unity, working together, understanding and sharing knowledge. Working together for a common aim. However, the world political powers appear to be typically sceptical of the other world powers, and increasingly paranoid as the film progresses until a communication black out occurs. What was twelve sites communicating and sharing information, is now twelve individual sites stumbling around trying to find the light switch. As scientists and therefore stereotypically not interested in petty governmental feuds, Banks and Donnelly are against this blackout, but by then it is too late. What makes this such a thought provoking and amazing film is that it uses real science, and real paranoia.

Take, for existence, the language learning. One of the core tenants of the film is “Do you dream in their language?” – why, hello Saphir-Whorf hypothesis of linguistic determinism! I have written papers on you! It was so satisfying having a film where the science doesn’t just happen. This is a film about understanding an alien language, right? So, they learn to understand the alien language. It doesn’t get shoved into a universal translator, Banks loses sleep with the circular patterns pinned up all around her. She does content analysis and tries to find commonalities. And Donnelley learns the language too, albeit at a slower pace than she does. In the end, it is by combining their knowledge – her language and his maths, which brings them to a conclusion. And it is her knowledge of the language which provides her with the insight that they desperately need.


Adams provides an absolutely stellar performance from start to finish. It is nearly impossible to say now what exactly made her performance so amazing – it could be how she didn’t crimp on the exhaustion, the dry one-line quips about “Why don’t we talk to them before you start throwing Math at them” or her dogged determination as Banks to do the right thing no matter the consequence. She is strong, she is smart, and she is emotional. She was excellent. I hope she gets her Oscar this year because, seriously, 6/5 stars for Amy. And Renner was also fabulous in this adorable dorky science way. As two scientists amongst a campful of military personel, they help each other, are excellent friends and stop considering the dual aims of the mission to be separate. It is like as Donnelly says (paraphrased because my memory isn’t that extraordinary) “this is all down to us. I feel like we are the only two that matter”. They band together, they defend one another and they trust each other, offering a hand to the shoulder, someone to lean on. There was this one bit near the beginning when Banks does her own thing to initiate language learning. She is successful, but the General is angry at her perceive lack of progress – to justify herself, Banks offers a story about miscommunication and Donnelly is just smirking to himself in the background and it is adorable. But that leads me back to the notion that science provides instant answers. it doesn’t but people still expect them. So it was very satisfying to watch the language development take time, to watch as the lexis was pieced together and Banks learn the language.

I could seriously whittle on about this film for days. The cinematography was excellent, the writing is beautiful, the aliens different enough to be a little creepy but not all out Hollywood gore. While not fast paced, the way the Arrival was presented was thought provoking and intelligent. Villeneue has outdone himself with this one. He may already have more than a couple of awards under his belt, but I will be very offended if this doesn’t even get a nomination for another few. It was quietly grand, without any of the showy flash-bangs that Hollywood seems to deem necessary for modern cinema. It was a wonderful idea supported by stellar actors, and handled with sensitivity. For the most part… there is one part where the American general implies that the Americans colonising Australia were the intellectual and technological superior to the Aborigines, which seems tactless especially for a film about international unity and cohesion.

Arrival was thought-provoking. It was quietly grand. It was extraordinary. It was the alien movie I didn’t realise I was waiting for. With a distinct lack of violence, and a storyline which seems insanely plausible I would seriously recommend to everyone I come across. Although, if you are expecting a War of the Worlds, you should probably steer clear – this film is a thinker. It provoked questions of morality, politics – deep philosophical questions. It was absolutely five star, and I think it will be hard to knock this one off my Film of the Year podium!

I don’t usually give a star rating, but this one, this one is definitely a 10/10 or a five star!


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