Starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker
Written by: Eric Heisserer; based on the short story ‘Story Of Your Life’ by Ted Chiang
Directed by: Denis ‘How You Feel About Blade Runner 2 Now?!?’ Villeneuve
Rated PG-13 for some language, alien language, thematic elements
Runtime 116 minutes
Communication is the basis of civilization, a character in Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival states. Communication. Not arms or culture or skin color. Communication, language, speech, the written word. Our ways to express thoughts and feelings are the most basic building blocks of our ways of life. It allows us to understand and to create. In myth, we built a tower to the heavens, one language, one goal. For our hubris, we were struck down and scattered, a thousand tongues across the earth; and one thousand walls were suddenly built around us.
Now, though, it is the gods who facilitate the construction of a new Babel. Instead of stratifying us further, Arrival attempts to rebuild that famed tower by bringing us together once more. Across the globe, twelve ovoid vessels have appeared in the sky and the world is thrown into panic. Who are they? What do they want? Are they here to hurt us? It is hard enough to talk amongst ourselves – every country is mobilizing itself in different ways to confront these ships – so imagine what it must be like to speak to a creature beyond the history of human language.
Enter Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) a linguistics professor who is tapped by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to lead the translation team at the American site. She is a shattered woman, having lost a daughter (that we see in flashbacks throughout the film), who now lives alone, dedicated to her work. It would be almost a cliche if Adams did not completely inhabit the role. She is neither hysterical, flashy, overbearing or dickish. She is just very, very good at her job. And while women can’t apparently do literally everything it seems, Adams can and brilliantly weaves between the technical, sci-fi and emotional aspects of this movie with effortlessness and grace.
Joining her is a phenomenal supporting cast of men. Whitaker turns in one of his best, most understated performances in years; even if he can’t always pin down…whatever accent he’s going for. Boston? Maybe. Jeremy Renner sheds his bow and quiver for a pair of glasses and an impressive understanding of physics. He’s been so typecast into the action role that it is a relief to see him breathe a little, to go against type and spout off some nerdy jargon. His precision – he’s a theoretical physicist – is a nice, logical counterbalance to Louise’s empathetic views. Language and math; literally art and literally science. They keep each other in check, and lift each other when they fall.
The world is horribly divided. We no longer talk to one another. Hundreds of think pieces have been written about half this country’s lack of understanding of the other half – and that’s just been in the last week or so! Arrival ‘arrived’ at precisely the right moment in history, like an alien ship descending from the heavens to force us to work together.
Those expecting a shoot-em up invasion film will be severely let down by the film’s slow and meticulous world-building and its emphasis on linguistics. It’s the first major sci-fi film in a long while whose core principle is built on precisely that: construction, not destruction. The latter is easy, but to build something, to forge new connections, to listen and through that, see the world in a vastly different way, now that is something remarkable. And Arrival is wonderful and should top a number of best of lists when 2016 finally closes down.
With Arrival, Denis Villeneuve (Sicario) vaults himself into the upper tier of working directors. The film unfolds like a Romantic poem, filled not with sound and fury of your typical sci-fi flock, but with grace and beauty and a sense of longing. Shots linger on faces and he cares more for emotions than plot. Just when our main story about decoding the alien language begins to grow a little long, Arrival skips ahead, language translated and switches focus onto how this new way of thinking affects humanity. Yet through all the apocalyptic chaos that is set to explode, Villeneuve never loses sight of Louise’s growth as a character. All the endless possibilities of the universe, and somehow the most beautiful thing is watching this woman slowly realize her true (and bittersweet) power.
In the end, Arrival is uninterested in the very masculine battle of wills a typical alien ‘invasion’ movie would focus on. There’s a reason Louise is surrounded by military men, after all. The lessons learned in the movie are more than just learning a new and completely alien language; it is about opening new lines of communication. It is about knowing the destination of a thing and however bad the outcome, still enjoying the journey. Much like the film itself – though, it may be one of the best and most emotionally powerful endings of a film this year. Listen, and you can learn wonders.