It’s become somewhat cliché to describe films as ‘ambitious’ but Arrival certainly earns the platitude. Director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario, Prisoners) has taken a short story (Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang) and, with the help of screenwriter Eric Heisserer, deftly wrought it into a two-hour science fiction drama. The film is high concept for an alien invasion movie and refreshingly simple – perhaps a cousin of Independence Day and Interstellar, without the melodrama and gun slinging of the former, or the heavy-handed dialogue of the latter. And it works.
The film leads with the usual alien invasion conceits – the sudden arrival of alien crafts over Earth and the recruitment of a somewhat bewildered academic to (somehow) assist. While initially playing into these familiar formulas, Arrival rejects the standard invasion plot and takes viewers into an altogether new direction. Dr Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is a professor of comparative linguistics, recruited to help translate the alien’s language and Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) is a theoretical physicist partnered with her. The two are taken to a base in Montana and set up within sight of one of the alien crafts to begin their work. They make breakthroughs quickly and begin learning the alien’s language and teaching them English. Banks is convinced the aliens have come to Earth with good intentions, but, understandably, the rest of the world is not so sure. Political intrigue, international distrust and military dissent factor into the plot, but they make for some of the least compelling scenes.
Amy Adams is raw and compelling as protagonist Louise, and Renner, as the sidekick, lets her shine – though his contributions never feel superfluous. The two form a friendship that is slow-blossoming and gentle, all the more affecting in its refusal to succumb to end-of-world-romance tropes.
Everything about Arrival feels assured and deliberate. The cinematography (by Bradford Young) is fluid, flowing seamlessly between the wintry ‘now’ and honeyed ‘memory’ scenes. His cool and symmetric compositions stand as a stark and unnerving juxtaposition to the more claustrophobic alien scenes. And like an undercurrent carrying viewers through each act is Jóhann Jóhannsson’s eerie score – at once threatening and unearthly, and faintly reminiscent of the aliens’ language.
Arrival is no War of the Worlds; it’s an emotionally intelligent, methodically paced and mature film, concerned more with ideas than action. Its themes are founded in linguistic theory, and Villeneuve tries to answer genuinely interesting questions: what language is and how language changes our thoughts and our view of the world. While it’s unlikely that any linguists versed in Saussure and Lacan or the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis will buy the resolving conceit, the premise certainly feels believable enough to the rest of us.
Arrival is slow burning and captivating, an instance of beautiful filmmaking combined with the poetic grandeur and searching questions of metaphysics and philosophy. A thinking movie.