“Arrival” Speaks Its Own Language

Christian Bolles, Editor-in-Chief

Think twice before reading this review. To discover director Denis Villenueve’s Arrival unspoiled, with no impression of its sweeping scale, intimate emotional core and mind-blowing final act, is an experience to be cherished. A science fiction thriller with a beating heart, based on the novella Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang, Arrival is a response to the swaggering bravado of its fellows in the celebrity-studded space film vein — Gravity, The Martian and Interstellar, to name just a few. In the film’s boundless grace, Arrival matches its peers in scope, puts their human dramas to shame and provokes more thought than even Nolan’s space odyssey, all while making objective sense, a feat that other high-concept science fiction often struggles with. Arrival hits emotional lows and wondrous highs, always gripping and never pretentious. As far as film experiences go, it’s hard to do better than Villenueve’s modern classic.

There’s an ethereal quality to the life of Louise Banks. We’re introduced to the renowned linguist through a heartbreaking montage detailing the tragically short life of her daughter, whose death sends Louise into a cycle of grief. When 12 monolithic alien craft land on Earth, the world stands still, and Louise is soon swept away by the U.S. government to assist in translating the seemingly indecipherable language of humankind’s newest obsession. But her personal aches never fade, leading to an emotional odyssey that will change the way she fathoms love, loss and time itself.

Science fiction films often have trouble translating the intangible wonder of alien contact from text to screen, but Arrival handily sustains the mystique of its strange extraterrestrial creatures throughout. There’s something appealingly primal about these vast, featureless ships suspended above the ground; their smooth outer shells and ridged, shale-like interiors feel like they’ve been cut from the same massive stone. The soundtrack, cinematography and art direction evoke distant landscapes far out of sight, and though the film doesn’t revel in the stars themselves, Arrival suggests the void through pitch-perfect tone in its every frame.

Accompanying the distant mystery of its thick atmosphere is a pervading sense of melancholy, epitomized in Amy Adams’ stellar performance as Louise. Her drawn-out expressions bear all the baggage of lost purpose, her gaze always wandering in the moments when she isn’t steeped in the enigma of her alien subjects’ language. Her scientist companion, played with typical but nuanced amiability by Jeremy Renner, provides a suitable counterbalance to her daring impulses.

As in Villenueve’s Sicario, Arrival makes a point to examine the attempts of the heroine’s male peers to second-guess and control her at nearly every turn. And since the film’s focus never wavers from Louise, this patriarchal atmosphere is frequently frustrating to watch, driving home a potent message while making the moments where she successfully runs against the grain that much more satisfying. Above all, Arrival is about liberation, both physical and intellectual, suggesting that our reality is colored entirely by our limited perception. From the beginning, Louise sees past that barrier, allowing her to innovate and triumph despite the social and political forces that threaten to impede her research.

For all its potency as sociopolitical commentary, Arrival never strays too far from its latent fascination with language. Anyone with even a passing interest in linguistic structures and calligraphy will be hard-pressed not to swoon at the film’s semantic analysis of the aliens’ wonderfully designed written characters, while Louise’s skillful attempts to coax meaningful responses out of her subjects are explained with thoughtful simplicity. Arrival’s ability to ground its lead character with expertise in a fascinating practical discipline exempts it from needing to explain her ultimately pivotal role in the world’s fate by proving just how brilliant she is, making her transition from a college professor to something else entirely consistent and believable.

With Villenueve’s prodigious directorial ability at the helm, Arrival succeeds in spinning an unforgettable tale of extraterrestrial contact around a rock-solid emotional core. The best science-fiction feature film of the past few years at least, this is a thriller that enlists both the head and the heart in ways that transcend the medium, ensuring resonance with any viewer willing to engage with its premise.