Editor’s Note: Arrival is currently playing in wide theatrical release.
There’s a moment in Arrival – Denis Villeneuve’s (Sicario, Enemy Prisoners, Incendies) latest film about the potentially devastating consequences of first contact with an alien species – where the central character, Louis Banks (Amy Adams), a linguistics professor, and Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a theoretical physicist, venture into a “shell,” one of twelve nearly featureless spaceships scattered around the world, where Banks and Donnelly have to take a literal, metaphorical, and maybe even metaphysical leap of faith. To enter the aliens’ waiting room, they have to first ride an elevated crane, then take a step in zero gravity where the laws of gravity momentarily cease to exist, before landing on one of the ship’s inner walls. Up is down and down is up (or sideways), their world – and everything associated with their world – including the comforting fiction that they (we) are alone in the universe (the sun may no longer be the center of the universe, but we were until they arrived), has been completely upended.
Intentionally or not, Arrival reflects our troubled, chaotic times, but it also embraces a positive, ultimately life- and community-affirming answer to the central question everyone wants answered, “Why are they here? What’s their purpose?”
Banks greets the experience with a mixture of awe, wonder, and terror. Until she sees the aliens for the first time through a looking glass (both a barrier and a window that also carries metaphorical weight), as far away from human-like or humanoid as any aliens put on film, dubbed “heptapods” in both Arrival and Ted Chiang’s short story, “Story of Your Life,” the source for writer Eric Heisserer’s (Lights Out, The Thing pre-make, A Nightmare on Elm Street remake) remarkably deft, literate screenplay, Banks doesn’t know what to expect and neither does the audience. The aliens arrive mysteriously, appearing over twelve, seemingly random locations around the world, floating in grey-black, oblong ships without visible means of propulsion, and simply wait patiently for humans to initiate first contact through a doorway (more a trapdoor given its location) that opens regularly every eighteen hours.
When we meet Banks, however, she’s in a period of mourning, apparently mourning the premature death of her only daughter to a rare, hereditary disease. She barely notices the empty seats in her classroom or the distracted, nervous looks on the faces of her students. Even the roar of military jets overhead barely breaks her out of a passionless routine, but a different kind of arrival in her life, the appearance of Colonel Weber (Forrest Whitaker) in her office and later her home, functions as a wake up call. The U.S. government desperately needs the services of someone of Banks’ talents, skills, and experience to help them break through the communication logjam with the aliens. Banks’ insistence on a face-to-face with the aliens almost ends her adventure before it begins, but Weber eventually relents, recognizing both the uniqueness of the situation and Banks singular nature.
In Amy Adams, Villeneuve found the perfect performer, the perfect vehicle to convey Banks’ complex, interior journey, often with just a minimal gesture or a micro-expression.
It’s rare, of course, for a relatively high-profile, mid-budget science-fiction film to feature a female protagonist, let alone one where suspense and tension doesn’t derive from CGI-enhanced action scenes, but on building rapport and trust with the aliens, in teaching them the rudiments of the English language and learning the rudiments of their language. Taking full advantage of the medium’s cinematic possibilities, Villeneuve visualizes the alien’s language as swirls of ink that coalesce into circles and semi-circles. Banks’ desire to learn, truly learn the intricacies of the aliens’ language, runs into a real-world problem: The leaders of foreign countries (Russia, China especially) react to the aliens’ presence first as a potential threat, then as a real one, but the real conflict is between hope and fear, inclusion (us and them) versus exclusive (us versus them), between projecting our fears and anxieties and risking disappointment or worse by accepting the aliens’ not as potential conquerors, but as neighbors and possible allies. Intentionally or not, Arrival reflects our troubled, chaotic times, but it also embraces a positive, ultimately life- and community-affirming answer to the central question everyone wants answered, “Why are they here? What’s their purpose?” Everything eventually turns, however, on whether Banks partial, incomplete, provisional understanding of the aliens’ language is more correct than an alternate meaning generated by the Chinese (they learned the aliens’ language through zero-sum games). Language isn’t as precise as we’d like to imagine, but open to interpretative ambiguity and uncertainty. Meaning derives from context, subtext, and culture (e.g., preconceptions, prejudices, and biases), often turning on the listener’s personal inclinations and personality traits (and flaws).
Arrival, however, isn’t a dry, intellectual treatise on linguistics or communication theory. Far from it, actually. In Banks’ story of loss, grief, and hope regained, it finds a deeply emotional, profoundly moving answer, one Villeneuve handles with subtlety and dexterity, opting for a slow-build, slow-burn approach closer in tone, feel, and atmosphere to an arthouse film than a supposedly mainstream science-fiction film distributed by a major studio. And in Amy Adams, Villeneuve found the perfect performer, the perfect vehicle to convey Banks’ complex, interior journey, often with just a minimal gesture or a micro-expression. Renner admirably serves as Adams’ foil, friend, and ally. As a character, Donnelly functions primarily as an exposition magnet, a sounding board for Banks’ ideas about the aliens, their language, and their intentions. Heisserer’s script hints at something more, but for most of Arrival’s running time, it’s just that, a hint of the possible, one future among many facing Banks after she cracks the language code.
Arrival finds a deeply emotional, profoundly moving answer to the questions of life through a slow-build, slow-burn approach closer in tone, feel, and atmosphere to an arthouse film than a supposedly mainstream science-fiction film. And in Amy Adams, Villeneuve found the perfect performer, the perfect vehicle to convey Banks’ complex, interior journey, often with just a minimal gesture or a micro-expression.