One thing that immediately strikes you when watching Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival is how much it makes you want to be an expert in something. As top theoretical physicists and linguists are called up to go inside a just-landed alien craft in order to study and commune with otherworldly visitors, the idea that, were this to really happen, you’d be left at home, in the dark, becomes a distressing one. It’s an instantly inspiring message of the value of intelligence in a film that ratchets up that signal of hope and idealism as it goes, making for one of the most beautifully heartfelt and compassionate films of the year.
Amy Adams plays Louise Banks, one of the world’s most distinguished linguists, who is brought in by the military to help decipher the purpose of the squid-like aliens that have just landed in 12 different, seemingly random, places all around the globe. The American ‘shell’, as the extra-terrestrial crafts come to be known, lands not in DC, New York, or LA, but a rural part of Montana, allowing for some gorgeous shots of mist-covered mountains and also the vital isolation that the story needs to work. Accompanying Banks is scientist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), with this union of science and language just a microcosm of the far wider theme of the world coming together to solve global problems.
With this in mind, Arrival couldn’t feel more timely in its plea for humanity to grow and learn as one, but even with a global message and intergalactic stakes, Eric Heisserer’s script, adapted from Ted Chiang’s short story ‘Story of Your Life’, manages to keep things comprehensibly small. With a minute cast (Forest Whitaker and Michael Stuhlbarg are the only other major characters as an army general and CIA goon respectively), and a love story buried deep within its heart, Arrival is incredibly human in the way that the very best sci-fi should be.
Heisserer eschews typical sci-fi mumbo jumbo, with the only technical jargon employed in discussions of the evolution and intricacies of language. As Banks makes breakthrough after breakthrough in communicating with the two aliens, named Abbot and Costello by her and Donnelly, they get closer to understanding the purpose of the visitation. As understanding of the alien language builds, Banks becomes able to think more like them, which sets up a glorious finale that explores the nature of time and reality, and how love transcends them both. In this way, it mirrors Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, and whilst that may edge out Arrival in the way it visually presents these ideas, Villeneuve’s film lands with much more thematic and emotional resonance.
As Arrival reaches its staggeringly ambitious denouement, everything comes together perfectly to make for an immensely powerful ending. It rewards careful viewing and the grand plot revelations both surprise and make perfect sense, enriching everything that’s come before. Adams is quietly wonderful in selling these emotional beats, both deeply personal and cosmic in their implications, and Jeremy Renner’s everyman performance style plays off her very well as their relationship flourishes through this impossible situation. Crucially, they are both entirely believable as leading experts in their fields, an aspect that often proves challenging to more obviously ‘starry’ actors in mainstream sci-fi films.
As is to be expected from a Villeneuve film, the technical elements of Arrival leave nothing to be desired. Though Roger Deakins isn’t in charge of cinematography this time around, ‘replacement’ DOP Bradford Young provides some breathtaking moments, working particularly well with Villeneuve’s love of aerial shots. Johann Johannsson’s score is magisterial, hushed yet epic, gelling brilliantly with the superb sound design. The alien language, written in broken circles of ephemeral ink, is whale-like when ‘spoken’, which sounds instinctively right for a hyper-intelligent race of giant heptapods.
Their ship is also a masterpiece of design. Of course, its very being is futuristic, as is its sleek exterior shape, but once close up to the hull, and particularly once inside, it becomes utterly primordial. All stone and mist, the ship already feels like we’ve stepped into a parallel universe – one far more ancient than our own – before the physics tricks even begin. As the humans ascend into the antechamber, gravity takes a disorienting 90 degree turn. Initially, it’s tempting to try and strain yourself to work out the exact mechanics of the shift but, as with the rest of the film, going with the flow and the wonder of the moment is the only real option.