Arrival (2016; dir. Denis Villeneuve) is a film of great emotional intelligence. Aspects of the film may require some suspension of disbelief, or at least a willingness to give oneself up to the logic and the imagination of the story. I expect good science fiction to stick within the realm of science, of scientific possibility, however much the writer may want to push and extend those barriers. The viewer of a science fiction film should apply a similar standard. Science fiction writers and filmmakers can't simply make things up. When they speculate, they must do so within the boundaries of what is scientifically plausible. Arrival honors these boundaries. (Much so-called science fiction should be more properly termed fantasy because it doesn’t work within these boundaries).
As I said, Arrival is an emotionally intelligent film. It's an intelligent film in general. Not to say necessarily that it's a great film, but that it is, given all the instances of cinematic science fiction out there these days (especially superhero films), a good film: partially because of the intelligence--you don't see intelligence in most films; partly also because of the acting – Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker are excellent in their roles. Because Arrival is a film about the sudden appearance on earth of twelve alien spaceships, special effects are necessary, but the film doesn't over-rely on them.
Arrival interweaves different motifs and issues and plot lines: it's about a so-called alien invasion; it's about a linguist attempting to decipher and communicate in an alien language; it's about a mother grieving over the death of her child, and dealing as well with the failure of her marriage; it’s about how the arrival of alien life might affect domestic and international relations. And it's a love story. The movie doesn't stress the love story until the end. The love plot involves what I would regard as the worst line in the film. I'll leave it to readers to identify that line. Arrival is also about time, about a theory of time.
There is considerable expository infrastructure in the film. By that I mean we expend a lot of time watching the military gather its forces and send troops and tanks and tents and other military materiel to the location of the alien spaceship that has landed in Montana. Do all such alien arrivals necessarily result in the mustering of military forces? It's not necessarily pertinent to the film how the military conducts itself. Even if the military needs to be on the scene, we don't need to watch for multiple minutes how it gets there. In a larger sense the military is pertinent because tensions are rising in the nations where twelve of the spaceships have landed, and as the film progresses those nations are moving towards going to war with the aliens and with each other. But this is not a film about the military. Let me be clear: I don't fault the military. It must do what it must do. Its role is over emphasized in Arrival, however, to the detriment of plot and character development.
Arrival alludes in a subtle way to contemporary American politics and the distrust of some elements of the American population in the American government. This leads to a mutiny of sorts by some soldiers, which is deftly integrated into the structure of the film.
The two most important plot lines are interwoven: one line is the struggle of Louise (Amy Adams) to grieve for and come to grips with the death of her teenaged daughter by cancer. The other is her efforts to decipher the alien language. Part of the intelligence and uniqueness of the film is how it makes a linguist the main character and central interest. Louise's partner in the efforts to interpret the alien language is an astrophysicist, played by Jeremy Renner; he regards what he does as science and what she does as something else. He is impressed to discover that linguistics at least from one point of view is a mathematical discipline. As the linguist, Amy Adams brings, in contrast to the authority of the military and scientific logic of Renner’s character, human emotions. She has the empathy and intelligence to recognize that language is more than simply a matter of words. It involves the need for physical presence--the need for individuals to be able to touch each other in some physical or at least emotional way. The film suggests that language is more than simply an ability to communicate.
Arrival works on the premise that language is a way of thinking with a direct physical effect on the brain. When one learns to speak another language in the deepest possible way, he or she learns to think in that language. When Louise learns to communicate in the alien language, she also learns to think like the aliens. Because their language and their way of thinking involves a non-linear concept of time, there are specific consequences in the plot of the film
The narrative to an extent moves back and forth in time, primarily from scenes involving Louise and her daughter (many of which she is remembering) and scenes in the present time. Louise's memories of her daughter play a role in her developing ability to decipher the alien language. As she advances in her ability to speak that language, she begins to think of time in nonlinear ways, which again has an impact on the plot.
Arrival may offer occasional difficulties in understanding what is going on, but maybe those difficulties are part of its point. Because it is so well-made and the acting is so effective, because of its emotional intelligence, the film justifies the willing suspension of disbelief that its plot requires.
Minor caveats: the physical appearance of the aliens--viewers can make their own decision about this point--and the amount of time it takes Louise to decipher the alien language--it's a nonhuman language, but she's communicating on a basic level in less than six weeks. These are quibbles.