Apocalyptic scenarios seem more and more common in science fiction movies every year, which I take as a sad indicator of our social outlook. I also think it’s pretty crass when worldwide disaster is just an excuse for more whiz-bang special effects adventure. The films that are more thoughtful on the subject, such as the recent Interstellar, often overreach themselves and become pretentious. Arrival, the latest film from the provocative Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, doesn’t completely avoid that trap, but it has some special qualities that set it apart.
Twelve gigantic spacecraft—they look like dark gray cucumbers—have suddenly arrived at twelve different sites around the world. The aliens, tall squid-like creatures with seven tentacles, do not come out to greet the earthlings, or make any demands. But the world’s military and scientific communities have gone inside the ships, attempting to discern the visitors’ intentions.
Amy Adams plays Louise Banks, one of the top linguistics experts in the U.S. She is recruited by an Army colonel, played by Forest Whitaker, to help decipher the alien language, which sounds like a series of moans, grunts, and clicks. She joins a team camped out in front of one of the spacecrafts that has landed in Montana, a team that includes a physicist played by Jeremy Renner, one of the few people on the team who seems to appreciate Louise’s unconventional intuitive methods.
Her first breakthrough is to get the aliens to communicate in written rather than verbal form, the written language conveyed in inky mandala-like circular characters. But she is working against time—the world’s military powers are quick to interpret the visitors as a potential threat, and this could lead to disaster.
The script, adapted by Eric Heisserer from a short story by Ted Chiang, has lots of interesting ideas about thought and language and the way these determine how we experience life. What makes the film special, though, is the emphasis on the inner life, the subjectivity of the main character, Louise. Throughout the film, in contrast to the regimental behavior and linear thinking of the mostly male military and scientific personnel involved in the project, Louise is very emotional, vulnerable to great excesses of feeling, especially fear and awe, that make the mission very difficult for her while also making her uniquely important to its success.
The film repeatedly returns to a story element involving Louise’s relationship with her young daughter, who eventually died of some rare disease before reaching adulthood. This intense bond with a child whose sensitivity is tragically emphasized by her early death, has some inward correspondence with Louise’s empathic connection to the aliens, a connection that isn’t quite clear at first, but which makes sense somehow in an emotionally heightened way.
Now, this is a big-budget Hollywood film, and so the story has some of what I would call over-determined qualities that go along with such excess and which can seem contrived when you look back on them afterwards. Nevertheless, Villeneuve knows how to take his time, doesn’t get lost in effects for their own sake, and continues to keep emotional inwardness at the film’s center, helped enormously by Amy Adams’ fearless and intense performance. Arrival pulled me into a deeper realm than just story—a way of experiencing that feels both strange and human.