Directed by Denis Villeneuve, the Québécois filmmaker best known for crime thrillers like Sicario (2015) and Prisoners (2013), Arrival is a delicate and deeply moving example of successful cinematic science-fiction. Adapted from Ted Chiang’s award winning 1998 short story Story of Your Life, the film stars Amy Adams as eminent linguist Dr. Louise Banks. In the opening scenes Louise’s lecture on Portuguese is interrupted by news that twelve enormous, vaguely ellipsoid extraterrestrial vessels have suddenly appeared above various locations across the globe. Though clearly troubled, the linguist appears strangely immune to the widespread terror and panic that follows, perhaps because she is grieving the death of her daughter, as implied by a series of brief flashbacks peppered throughout the narrative.
On the strength of her previous translation work for the U.S. military Louise is recruited by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to join an emergency task force assigned to investigate the alien vessel hovering above rural Montana. She is joined by physicist and mathematician Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and placed under the supervision of Weber and Agent Halpern (Michael Stuhlbarg) from the CIA. In a clever break from genre tradition first contact with the aliens aboard the vessel has already taken place when Louise arrives at base camp. Weber plays her some audio recorded during the team’s past attempts to communicate with the aliens and the linguist insists that if the eerie, guttural sounds represent spoken language she will need hear it in person to translate it.
Jóhann Jóhannsson’s haunting score serves to amplify the dreamlike quality of the sequence where Louise and Ian first venture inside the alien vessel and encounter its occupants, two peculiar, distinctly non-humanoid creatures the team has dubbed Heptapods because of their seven, tentacle-like limbs. The fact that the Heptapods lack anything remotely resembling a face lends them an unnerving ambiguity, it’s impossible to tell if they’re friendly or threatening. We don’t get any sense of their intentions until Louise persuades them to begin communicating using inky, intricately curved symbols that represent their written language. She spends the next several months learning to understand and articulate this complex, nonlinear language but just as she’s on the verge of understanding the purpose of the Heptapods arrival on Earth the Chinese announce that they have ceased negotiating with the occupants of their vessel and are preparing to attack.
Other governments around the world follow China’s lead and for a moment it appears as though Arrival is going to turn into a conventional Hollywood action flick but Villeneuve ultimately opts to stay true to the cerebral spirit of Chiang’s story for the film’s breathtaking final act. Villeneuve uses the visual syntax and narrative form of cinema to not just explore but extend Chiang’s ideas about linguistic relativity and determinism. Learning to think and communicate in the Heptapods written language challenges Louise’s sequential perception of reality and watching the revelatory and occasionally ecstatically beautiful final minutes of Arrival does something similar to the viewer.
Of course none of this would have worked without Amy Adams’ stunning lead performance. The actress does career best work as Arrival’s complex, soulful central character, and manages to ground the film’s more sensational elements, like the Heptapods themselves, in some level of reality. Villeneuve’s other collaborators also deserve credit. Screenwriter Eric Heisserer skilfully adapted Chiang’s fiercely intelligent story for a mainstream movie-going audience while Joe Walker’s expert editing ensured that Arrival was mystifying and disorienting at times without ever crossing the line into incoherence. Selma and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints cinematographer Bradford Young is responsible for the film’s arresting visual style.