I'd been thinking lately about UFO stories and wondering if their time passed for good at the end of the '90s. Then I remembered I still hadn't seen 2016's Arrival, a generally well liked UFO film. Its director, Denis Villeneuve, went on to direct Blade Runner 2049, which I loved, so I watched Arrival a couple nights ago. I didn't like it half as much as Blade Runner 2049 but I thought it was pretty good. Its visuals are handsome though somewhat conventional and Amy Adams is a great lead.
Arrival takes the flying saucer concept and turns it on its head, or on its side, I guess. Mostly the film's design for its aliens doesn't feel substantially distinct from the usual echoes of H.R. Giger though it's a bit more minimalist than usual. This emphasises one of the ways in which Giger-esque designs manage to look so alien--human ships and technology are always crammed with details. Rivets, blocks and tackle, manufacturer logos. Something lacking such a visual motley tends not to look human. It would be interesting to see an alien design that attempts to create a comparable level of detail with associations of complex cultural and technological meaning. Sounds like a lot of work, though.
The main focus of the film is on communication between the aliens and a linguist, Louise (Adams), and how, when she and the aliens finally communicate successfully, it involves a surprisingly personal experience for her related to family trauma. The obvious comparison is to the Jodie Foster film Contact though Arrival goes a little further with it.
For anyone with experience learning a foreign language, Louise's first step of showing the aliens the word "human" written in English seems an odd choice. Why not "yes" and "no"? Why not start with pictures or even simply "hello"? But the use of a Memento style twist at the end of the film works as a nice way of talking about the disorientation involved in a so fundamentally alien form of communication where the strangeness of it may be in its peculiar familiarity.
The supporting cast is pretty good, including Forest Whitaker and Michael Stuhlbarg. Jeremy Renner as Adams' love interest is kind of a dud but mostly the film thankfully focuses on Adams.