Is this just another alien invasion story or something altogether different?
Arrival (not to be confused with the entertaining 1998 film The Arrival staring Charlie Sheen) does feature an alien invasion story, but this is actually secondary to what the film is about.
Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is a linguist the government turns to in order to help communicate with the recently arrive aliens. One of their 12 ships has landed in a field in Montana and nobody knows why. Interestingly, the governments of other countries where these ships have landed do not always share their information about the aliens, which is quite a realistic depiction of how we would likely respond to such an event in this day and age.
The geopolitics of the film are quite actualised with what we see happen regularly: riots, violence, war. There is no ‘higher purpose’ and ‘greater good’ to how people respond to these aliens, people respond (as we usually do to an unknown) defensively and, sometimes, with outright violence. If this happened to ET he would have probably gotten his ass kicked. Ouch, indeed! Fortunately for him children are so naïve and innocent!
Anyway, the bulk of the film has Louise alongside scientist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) trying to figure out how to communicate with the aliens, who open their ship every 18 hours to talk to us.
The way the aliens communicate is visually interesting and once Louise understands it the story moves forward as she figures out why they are here.
The reveal of why the aliens are here is not radical as far as sci-fi tropes go and quite incidental to the overall narrative. What makes it interesting though is how Louise figures into all of this. Again, it is not new as far as sci-fi goes (in particular the one person to save the world trope), but the way it is told, and the musical score especially, makes it an emotional experience.
In short, the story is not about an alien invasion; rather, it is a story about a woman struggling with loss, forced in to an incredible situation to make sense of her world. If you go in to the film thinking of it this way, you will probably enjoy it more instead of viewing it as an alien invasion story.
This is the sci-fi I enjoy more, where the sciency-fictiony bits are secondary to telling a good story.
This is a standard sci-fi film which does not do anything to really revolutionise the genre. However, what sets this film apart from others is its emphasis on realism and presenting an emotional story about one woman’s loss. The reveal at the end of the film is not shocking, but it does have an emotional impact as the musical score pulls at the heart strings. Go see this film not as a sci-fi alien invasion film, but an examination of how we respond to loss and the challenges of the unknown.