Smart, suspenseful 'Arrival' reminds us it's good to talk

Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner chat with aliens in this gripping, relevant parable about the importance of connecting rather than cutting ourselves off.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
Expertise Films, TV, Movies, Television, Technology
Richard Trenholm
2 min read
Photo Credit: Jan Thijs

How do you say "Take me to your leader..." when you don't know the lingo?

Amy Adams tackles that question in the smart, slow-burning sci-fi movie "Arrival", in theatres in the UK, US and Australia on 11 November.

Director Denis Villeneuve follows up the excellent "Sicario" with this fiercely relevant tale of mysterious aliens arriving on earth. For what purpose these beings have come to earth no-one knows, because no-one knows the language.

Adams plays a linguist called in to figure out how to communicate with the aliens, with the help of Jeremy Renner's laid-back scientist, a task made more pressing as paranoid rival nations begin to see the new arrivals as a threat.

We'd usually rather watch Captain Kirk make eyes at aliens than try to figure out their alphabet. But if we ever encounter extra-terrestrial life, figuring out how to communicate will be the first task. While science fiction usually relies on devices such as Star Trek's universal translator to gloss over these problems and move on to more exciting bits, "Arrival" makes a gripping story of the struggle to communicate. It's a taut exercise in suspense, echoing the layered mystery-box structure of "Sicario" to reel us in as the stakes rise.

As much as it's about talking to aliens, "Arrival" is also about the need for us to talk to each other. The film deals with very real and very relevant concerns about our fear and distrust of newcomers and each other. With the global refugee crisis still affecting millions of us around the world, it's a reminder of the dangers of our instinctive reaction to cut ourselves off and see others as less than human.

"Arrival" grounds these big themes in our real world of Trump's wall and Brexit and Black Lives Matter by showing much of the story through TV news. The aliens' initial arrival is eerily reminiscent of 9/11 as people gather to watch the spaceships on the news, aware the world has changed but unsure how -- and creeping close to panic.

Just like in real life, a constant news cycle fuels the tension as humanity edges closer to disaster. Even in our world of instant and ubiquitous communication we still have to strive to connect with each other and find common ground as human beings.

In its combination of big themes, globe-spanning sci-fi and intimate character moments, "Arrival" feels like it's what "Interstellar" wanted to be. Renner is his usual bland self and and you're probably better off not squinting too hard at the loopy genre twist, but those are minor quibbles. "Arrival" is smart, suspenseful sci-fi of the highest calibre. On this evidence, the long-awaited "Blade Runner" sequel seems safe in Villeneuve's hands.