The aliens have landed.
Well, they haven’t landed, actually. It’s more like they’re hovering. Twelve gigantic, egg-like ships are suspended just above the ground at strategic points around the globe. And every 18 hours, a doorway opens at the bottommost point of each craft to let curious scientists in for a face-to-face with their otherworldly visitors.
But there’s a language barrier.
You see, these huge mysterious creatures glide through a milky mist on the other side of some kind of transparent wall in the ship’s interior. They click, ping, knock and moan in what must be some kind of language. But try as they might, the science guys can make neither heads nor tails of it.
What’s more frustrating—especially to the anxious generals and nail-biting government officials who watch nervously from nearby equipment-stuffed tents—is that no one can figure out how to get their questions across, either. And they have many. “Where do you come from?” is one. For that matter, “What do you want?” is another good one. Of course, some of the more squinty-eyed types are wondering if we should be laying out welcome mats or punching in access codes for our nukes.
That’s when Dr. Louise Banks is summoned. This brilliant American linguistics professor gets tapped by the U.S. government to enter a local alien spacecraft and see what she can do to bridge the communication gap. She’s tasked, along with an advanced mathematician expert named Ian Donnelly, with making sense of the large, black, Rorschach-like splotches that these space visitors emit.
Therein lies the rub.
Banks and Donnelly may be well-versed in the latest equations and language concepts. They may feel perfectly comfortable with everything from Arabic to algebra, Cantonese to calculus. But how does someone become fluent in alien clinks and squirts?
When an advanced alien species swoops in to hover at points around the globe, the first reaction by some—especially the Russians and Chinese—is to spool up their armed forces and take aim at the invaders. But Louise and Ian are determined to do everything possible to keep things from degenerating into warfare. So they work tirelessly at trying to break the communication code. They step out of their protective outfits, in spite of potential danger, to better reach out to the aliens. They even risk being shot by their own troops in an effort to get another government’s leader to veer from a violent path.
Personally, Louise struggles with the wrenching grief of losing her daughter, Hannah, to a terminal illness. We see multiple flashbacks to that effect. Despite that emotional agony, though, Louise makes it clear that the joys and rewards of their relationship while her daughter was still alive far outweigh her pain. Louise and Hannah both profess their deep love for one another. In fact, Louise reflects on the painful things of life and says, “Despite knowing the journey and where it leads, I embrace it, and I welcome every moment of it.”
A news report states that a “Pentecostal group” has burned its church and that members have committed suicide, thinking that the aliens are a sign of the end times.
Louise’s husband embraces her (while they’re both fully clothed) and asks if she wants to make a baby.
After the alien crafts arrive, panicked people to start riot and loot in the streets. We see folks smashing storefronts and wreaking havoc. We also witness large military and naval formations moving into place in anticipation of attack.
An explosion results in at least one casualty. Guns are fired off camera and, in another scene, brandished menacingly. We hear that the Russian government executed one of its experts in an effort to keep certain secrets hidden.
We see Hannah on her death bed as she succumbs to a terminal illness.
One f-word along with one use each of “b–tard” and “h—.” Characters exclaim, “Oh my god!” once or twice.
Louise drinks wine. An army doctor gives both Louise and Ian some kind of system-strengthening “booster shot” that, it’s subtly implied, could cause hallucinations.
Someone vomits. Television and online commentators foment unrest among their viewers.
Arrival is yet another film about mankind’s first contact with a super-advanced civilization that we have long imagined to be out there. But this version is a little different.
There’s no Independence Day-like bim-bam-boom here. No little green men or giant robots with laser eyes, either. In fact, this intelligent, multi-layered pic is likely not what you’re expecting it to be at all.
Instead, it’s a compelling, well-written film that prompts viewers to think less about our imagined fantasies of faraway stars and far more about the things we cherish most deeply. The film talks of the grief and pain of life, and the human capacity to keep choosing to love and to sacrifice for others in spite of that anguish.
So just how does a sci-fi film about a human linguistics expert visiting with aliens that communicate through clicks, knocks, squirts of ethereal ink and room-shaking bass notes do all that? Well, I can’t tell you without giving too much away. But I will say that a couple of light-but-unfortunate content wormholes in this movie’s space-time continuum—namely, a smattering of harsh profanity—could well make parents pause before beaming young kids into theater seats.
As for the rest of us, well, two clicks, four knocks and a bass rumble mean, “Would you like butter with your popcorn?”
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.