Home » Years » 2016 » Arrival ••••1/2

Arrival ••••1/2

arrival_movie_posterStarring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Screenplay: Eric Heisserer, Ted Chiang
Drama/Mystery/Sci-Fi, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 116 minutes
Release Date: November 11, 2016


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Scott, it looks like we’ve finally arrived…

(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

… and it’s about time. Literally. Let’s get to reviewing this next movie about alien visitation.

We’re introduced to Professor Leslie Banks (Amy Adams) who is having a strange day as 12 “shells” (very large egg-shaped alien craft) have landed across the world. She’s visited by a Colonel Webber (Forest Whitaker) who insists she help him translate the speech patterns of the aliens. She resists but ultimately gives in when her curiosity gets the better of her. She’s whisked away to a midwest town where she is paired with theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and must discover the reason for the alien visit.

Banks and Donnelly meet two of the aliens and nickname them Abbott and Costello. Communication seems impossible until Banks attempts written language. She discovers that the aliens’ writing is composed of complex circular characters and sentences, and she also discovers that the more she deciphers the language, the more strange visions she has of herself raising a child. Meanwhile, in China, General Shang (Tzi Ma) is about to wage war with the aliens, making it imperative that Banks and Donnelly crack the code before disaster strikes.

Arrival is a film that arrived without much fanfare. I don’t recall seeing any previews for it in the theaters or ads on TV. So, I had very few preconceptions going in. And I was pleasantly surprised. This is an arguably ponderous film with very little action and a lot of dialog. It’s a thinking-man’s movie, so it appealed to me. One of the opening scenes has physicist Donnelly reading Banks’ book which states that all interactions begin with language. But he differs – claiming the basis for communication is science. Whereas Colonel Webber is looking at the situation from a tactical point of view. And so the stage is set for a three-way confrontation of ideals. And in the end, it is Banks’ view that wins out. I was favorably impressed.

Greg, I loved Arrival. It’s been a long time since we’ve encountered a meaty science fiction story that really makes you think. I was struck by the possibility that our language is not so much a reflection of our linear thinking but a determinant of it. The temporal non-linearity of the aliens was fascinating and allowed for some truly creative plot developments. We’re also treated to some wonderfully innovative renditions of aliens and alien language. Not to mention that Amy Adams delivers a terrific performance as a hero who must piece together the temporal puzzle to save the world. It all adds up to a stellar movie, pardon the pun.

Amy Adams was definitely the brightest star in this film. Her character Leslie Banks undergoes a strong transformation from disillusioned academic to an enlightened world figure. She also exhibits uncommon empathy for the aliens. She puts aside her innate fear of the unknown and is captivated by the question of what is the purpose of the alien visit. I found her very inspiring.

Banks definitely goes on an inspired hero’s journey — yet another example of Hollywood finally “getting it” that women characters can make tremendous heroes in the movies. The hero’s journey begins with Banks answering the “call” from the military to make first contact with aliens who have landed in Montana. She immediately assumes a lead role in her partnership with Donnelly, a physicist on her team. Her missing quality is her understanding of the alien language, and the keys to her acquiring this quality are her openness to thinking outside the box, her trust that the aliens will do no harm, and her courage to defy the military’s antagonistic approach to the alien encounter.

Banks possesses many of the great eight characteristics of heroes; she is smart, strong, resilient, reliable, caring, inspiring, and selfless. In keeping with the hero’s journey, she encounters a love interest (Donnelly), allies in Abbott, Costello, and oppositional forces in the military and CIA. Her mentors turn out to be the aliens themselves, who have arrived to help the earth understand and change their language and use of time. In exchange, the earth will help the aliens 3,000 years from now. Everything comes full circle, which is beautifully symbolized in the alien circular linguistic characters.

The aliens are good mentor figures here. And we also see that Banks acts as a hero-mentor in that she mentors the aliens in our language. After all, it is she who instructs the aliens, not the other way around. However, this does imply a bit of a plot hole. If the aliens are so advanced, why are they so dense in understanding our language? Compare to our own understanding of animal language. It is human researchers who have taught apes to speak American Sign Language. I would think it incumbent upon the more advanced civilization to find a way to communicate with us.

Arrival is a departure from other first contact movies like Contact and Close Encounters of the Third Kind where language is the source of the communication. I enjoyed the slow burn from fear to understanding for all the characters in the story. I give Arrival 4 out of 5 Reels.

Dr. Banks is a great hero who undergoes a transformation from naive to educated in the ways of the alien creatures. Like many heroes we’ve studied in the last few years, she has a “super power” which in this case is the ability to understand language. But it is her human innate quality of empathy which endears Banks to us. I give her 4 out of 5 Hero points.

And Banks is the most excellent hero-mentor. And when you join her with the superior alien-mentors we get a mentoring experience that goes beyond what most films offer. I give Banks and the aliens 4 out of 5 Mentor points.

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Arrival is the science fiction you’ve been looking for in film for several years now. Greg, the plot hole you identify is not so much a hole but the key to understanding the puzzle with which the aliens present humanity. Twelve shells arrive on earth, each with a different piece to the puzzle that the twelve earth stations must share to unravel the mystery. The idea is to bring humanity together in a non-zero-sum-game-like way. This guiding principle, along with stunningly crafted heptapods and their innovative language, make Arrival a treat to watch. I give this film the full 5 Reels out of 5.

Louise Banks proves herself braver and smarter than all her male counterparts in both developing a working relationship with the aliens and in deciphering their cryptic language. She encounters friends who help her and foes who oppose her, and she undergoes a profound mental transformation. In our latest book Reel Heroes & Villains, we define a mental transformation as a significant change in the way that a hero views the workings of the universe. Banks now sees time, language, and thought as intertwined. She travels the full hero’s journey, including the act of giving back to society what she has learned in the form of lectures and a book on the universal language of the heptapods. She earns the full 5 Heroes out of 5.

The mentorship is also strong in this film, with the aliens mentoring Banks as well as the entire human race itself. Our planet is taught how essential it is for our survival to adopt a non-zero-sum philosophy in our international relations. You’re right, Greg, that Banks also mentors the aliens — although I suspect they intentionally adopted a passive stance in the first contact proceedings to force us to do the work of deciphering and cooperating with each other internationally. Oh, and let’s not forget that the future Louise Banks mentored the present-day Louise Banks via many hallucinogenic messages. In short, the mentoring is rich in this film and also merits the full 5 Mentor points out of 5.

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  1. paulmatthis says:

    Hey, thanks for the great discussion. Just a quick point: I suspect the aliens already knew our language to some degree before arriving, as evidenced by their use of the word ‘weapon’ for ‘language’. That’s the opening of the book Leslie has already written, i.e. her first interaction with Ian. The aliens weren’t learning English necessarily, but rather how to converse in a meaningful way in real-time with humans. Once they’ve taught Leslie enough Heptapod, they’re able to speak with her more directly in the belly of the whale white world sorta thing she gets to from the elevator pod.

    • Greg Smith says:


      Thanks for the comment. You make a good point. I was wondering about the whole bit where she talks to them in English without using the written language. I thought that was a bit of a plot hole. Thanks for following our blog!


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