Aliens arrive, and linguist Louise Banks is sent to find out how to communicate with them. Interwoven with that, from the first scene, is her remembering the tragic life of her daughter, who died young.
This is breathtaking science fiction on every level. It is powered by a genuinely interesting Big Idea, has amazing production design, the dialogue is great and intelligent – and it never forgets that its a film about people. In fact, there is a near-perfect synthesis between the inner emotional development of the characters and the overt plot of learning to speak to the aliens. The film dodges most of the typical dumb pratfalls that other alien-arrival films like The Day the Earth Stood Still [1951 & 2008] trip into. The film never lets itself get distracted either, showing just enough scenes away from the immediate characters of interest to keep the sense that there is a world, without becoming unfocused or bloated. Amy Adams delivers a really subtle and amazing performance in the lead, and even Jeremy Renner somehow isn’t a total vacuum of interest in this film – his part is kept mercifully contained.
I struggle to find a rational and compelling argument for why this film didn’t make my list of the best films of 2016. I think that while it was fascinating, it was also emotionally muted for me. I empathised with the characters and their struggles, but I never found the love story interesting, never felt the triumph of success, didn’t feel tears welling up at the story of the poor innocent child shown dying in flashback. It was somehow too cerebral, too distant. It’s an amazing production, but without an emotionally-compelling centre, I’ve never felt a desire to re-watch it. I respect it more than I love it.
Recently the Academy has been nominating genre and especially science fiction outings with more frequency – last year we had the Martian, and two years before that Gravity – but no Science Fiction film has ever won. I think the reason is that for all that these films use and explore character, they’re always primarily about their motivating Big Idea, rather than about human nature directly. Arrival is better than almost all SF in that regard, but its human characters are still secondary to its idea, and so for all that it’s fascinating, it’s not about us, and therefore won’t and shouldn’t win.