Anyone who texts knows the power of language and grammar. If a text includes a period, particularly after the word “OK,” it can signify anything from certainty to simmering hatred. Language, particularly how it creates the possibility of a perceived slight or threat, is at the heart of Arrival, the remarkable science fiction film from director Denis Villeneuve. In an era where special effects coincides with a dearth of ideas, here is a cerebral film that relies on curiosity for its ample thrills. Villeneuve is a fascinating genre filmmaker, although most of his work approaches Kubrickian detachment. His latest is moving, too, in ways that are quietly shocking.
Working from the Ted Chiang short story “Story of Your Life,” screenwriter Eric Heisserer creates gnawing dread through understatement. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is a linguistics professor at an unnamed university, and she is surprised when one of her lectures is empty. She understands the reason why after a student asks her to turn on the TV: twelve alien ships have landed at different spots across the globe, including one in Montana. They are ominous, but not quite threatening.
Like the monoliths from 2001: A Space Odyssey, their onyx color and minimalist shape suggest unfathomable intelligence. Forest Whitaker plays Weber, an army Colonel who recruits Louise to speak with the aliens. Along with physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), Louise enters the ship every eighteen hours in an attempt to communicate. They make progress, but the other countries grow increasingly nervous, thinking that an attack may be the only appropriate response.
Heisserer and Villeneuve demand a lot. Arrival requires careful attention, and the film never relies on an overabundance of exposition. By never overexplaining, the film forces us to get involved in what happens next. Adams is crucial to this effect: there is steely intelligence alongside her patience and naturally warm demeanor, so Louise spends a lot of film convincing Weber and Halpern (Michael Stuhlbarg), a CIA functionary, to avoid anything drastic. There is an early scene where Louise notes that language is the basis for civilization, and her initial contact with the aliens reflect that. Villeneuve shows the aliens early, and engages our sense of wonder in other ways. There are long, thoughtful scenes where Louise painstakingly builds a vocabulary, and the thought behind her method is delightful – albeit in an odd way.
The special effects, while frequent, are always understated. When Ian and Louise first enter the ship, they discover something bizarre: the ship has its own gravity, so they stand parallel to the ground below them. Villeneuve reveals this through negative space and a playful sense of perspective (Louise and the others look flat while standing up). What’s crucial – and what helps make Arrival the best science fiction film in years – is how Villeneuve lets the story serve his decision-making. No shot is out of place, and the crisp cinematography gives us ample time to grapple with the film’s premise. Arrival taps into an infrequent sources of cinematic thrills: the yearning to understand more. This is not the same thing as fear of the unknown, or wanting to know more. Crucially, the film internalizes the difference.
Arrival works another deep level, and unearths it slowly. Like the hermetically-sealed contact between Louise and the aliens, films and storytelling have their own rules, their own grammar. After years in dark theaters, we have an innate expectation of certain cinematic outcomes, whether it’s in terms of editing or camera placement. Heisserer and Villeneuve know this, recalibrating expectations so we ultimately think and feel differently. This is an astonishing feat for any film, let alone a Hollywood release, and it accomplishes it without any on-screen violence or histrionics.
I am writing this review on the day after Donald Trump became President-elect. I mention this because there is a component of Arrival that now seems a little naïve: it features its hero – a soft-spoken intellectual woman – convincing stubborn world leaders to follow her lead. Moreover, the film ends on a note of mutual cooperation. After Tuesday’s election results, such an idea now seems unfathomable. Arrival could not have arrived at a better time: it demonstrates the need for a new language, and the path to get it. That path requires sacrifice, and it requires trust. Maybe that is a fantasy, but if a ruthless stylist like Villeneuve can find reconciliation where there should be none, so can his audience.