Director: Denis Villeneuve
Runtime: 116 minutes
There is a moment in Arrival in which an observation about language caused me to freeze in my seat. If I was shocked, it was due not to some sensational revelation. For a “big moment,” it is played with an almost disorienting amount of elegance and reserve. And yet this delicate, seemingly banal line about the nature of languages (or rather, one language in particular) left me in the same state of awe as the climactic passages of 2001, Solaris, or Stalker. It serves not as a copout, but as a mind-warping enrichment of everything that comes before and after.
Adapted from Ted Chiang’s acclaimed short story “The Story of Your Life,” Arrival‘s set up is hardly novel. Aliens land, and it’s up to us to figure out what they want (and, in the worst case scenario, to fight back). So it’s all the more astonishing that, Arrival has been allowed to exist in its present form. As written by Eric Heisserer and directed by Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Sicario), Arrival represents the most extreme opposite of bellicose blockbusters like War of the Worlds or Independence Day. Though the special effects are impressive, they pale in comparison to what is achieved through the enigmatic storytelling, and the haunting lead performance from Amy Adams.
Adams plays Louise Banks, an expert linguist called upon to help the US government following a global incident. 12 UFO’s, which look like elongated obsidian eggs, have touched down across the globe, including one in America’s backyard, Montana. At the forceful request of Col. Weber (Forest Whitaker), she is rushed out to US-bound spacecraft, and paired with theoretical physicist Ian (Jeremy Renner) to decipher the aliens’ intentions.
Global tensions, understandably, run high, and yet the plot’s trajectory never fails to subvert expectations. The linguistics conversations are not an entryway to a standard thriller plot, but rather the launchpad for a richer tale of time, memory, and communication. Deciphering a language, much like editing a book, is not a process that lends itself to screen-drama. And yet, somehow, Heisserer’s screenplay often does what so many others struggle to accomplish. The writing is devoted to explaining various connections and theories, but never allows them to grind the narrative to a halt.
And even when the dialogue becomes purely expository, it is gracefully complimented by Villeneuve’s overall grasp on the material. Since making the leap from Quebec, the Canadian helmer has become a first rate director of the sort of mid-budget, adult-targeted dramas that are so hard to come by in Hollywood. With each new project, Villeneuve moves to different genres and settings, yet maintains a devotion to keeping his stories grounded in the authentic. Arrival has far loftier intentions than Villeneuve’s previous work, and it works because of, not in spite of, its fantastical elements.
With so much emphasis on ideas and plot trickery, one might understandably fear that the human element of something like Arrival would be an inconvenience. But what ultimately gives Arrival its tremendous impact comes down to its refusal to separate the emotional and cerebral components. The eventual intersection of the large and small scale conflicts, which could have so easily derailed the film, builds to an ingenious series of developments that drastically alter the stakes, but in the most unexpected ways.
Louise is at the center of all of Arrival‘s plot threads and themes, and Adams is nothing short of stunning in the role. Much like Emily Blunt’s protagonist in Sicario, Louise is often quite withdrawn. She is a reactor, not an actor, but that doesn’t make her a blank slate. For all of her guardedness, Adams is still tremendously expressive throughout. The movements of her face and eyes appear to hold several lifetimes worth of emotion. Louise is out of her depth, yet somehow has all of the answers. She has moments of understanding, yet can’t figure out how she got from point A to point B to begin with. Despite playing the put-upon hero of sorts, Adams delivers the antithesis of a star performance; her work is defined by introspection and nuance.
Renner and Whitaker are reliable, though of the humans it all comes down to Adams. The Heptapods (our name for the aliens) are appropriately enigmatic, as if the monolith from 2001 sprouted legs and communicated through inky hieroglyphs. Tech credits are excellent across the board, with the score and editing standing out in particular.
Yet even with the Heptapods and their spaceship, the images (photographed by the outstanding Bradford Young) that seem to linger most in Arrival are among the simplest. A shot of an empty house, two people embracing, Louise’s eyes lighting up as she connects the latest series of dots. Or, in one case, the way the camera holds on Adam’s exhausted, solemn expression as the spaceship sits in the background, obscured and out of focus. The utter stillness of the moment crystallizes everything that’s beautiful about Arrival. Here is a science-fiction story defined not by promises of effects-driven chaos, but by a paradoxical mix of melancholy and hope in the face of the great infinite beyond.