Rewind: Review of “Arrival”

by Michael Henley

There’s a wonderful sequence towards the end of Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind­—a magical moment of pure cinema, in a movie that is full of them. A huge alien mothership descends upon a secret government camp nestled against the base of Devil’s Tower. It hovers for a moment, and then the mothership and the techies on the surface have an exchange—not of weaponry, but of musical notes. It’s a pre-arranged signal that is bounced back and forth between the two, giving way first to cooperation, then to harmony, then to playful, jazz-like improvisations, all done with increasingly dizzying speed. It evokes the pure intellectual thrill of discovery and communication—of finding commonality within great difference. This wondrous moment is echoed, towards the very end, when a linguist played by Francois Truffaut “speaks” to an alien being in the flesh, through the purity of sign language.

Imagine an entire movie pitched at the level of eerie grandeur within that sequence, and you’d have a movie very much like Arrival, a science fiction movie of big ambition and even bigger intellectual heft. This is a genuinely smart science-fiction movie (many sci-fi movies, even when I love them, are not). It’s probing and delicate and thoughtful. And it’s one of my favorite types of sci-fi: where scientists and thinkers encounter the unknown and try to meet it halfway. The two heroes are Louise Banks (Amy Adams), another linguist, and Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a mathematician. She is lonely and introspective (the movie’s prologue hints at a tragic part of her story) and he is mysterious but friendly. They are good at their jobs, and they have to be to navigate what happens. A lot of sci-fi presupposes meetings between humans and astonishing aliens. Arrival is a movie that asks bigger questions beyond that setup, but one of its most crucial is simply this: what would they talk about?

The director is Denis Villeneuve, who has made films like Prisoners and Sicario. We might expect from that, perhaps, a polished yet bleak motion picture. A good one, yes, but undoubtedly cynical. It is not. It teems with curiosity and challenge. It dares its characters to work things out, and make bold-but-vital intellectual leaps. Banks and Donnelly are quickly swept into a secret government operation when alien ships arrive on Earth and hover over dozens of points around the planet. Before long, Banks and Donnelly will meet honest-to-God aliens and have to deal with them. Not through pyrotechnics or violence or even condescension, but with introductions and interaction, with exchanges of ideas and learning. Before long, Louise is studying their language and struggling towards the Holy Grail of fluent communication. And then what could happen?

Threats enter the story in the form of hawkish generals and ticking clocks, and at a certain point disconnection seems probable and disaster looks imminent. But the movie sides with the scientists trying to understand. It is about overcoming our suspicions and our fear. It is about making contact and not recoiling at the touch. It’s about tolerance and embracing the unknown. It is, simply put, a rebuke to the overwhelming din of our troubled, dangerous and ugly times.  I saw it on Monday night and was convinced of this. As I write this piece, it is the Wednesday after the election. I am sad and haunted and enraged and afraid, yes. Like many of us are. And I am even more convinced of Arrival’s importance right now.

Villeneuve builds up to the first moment of alien arrival with well-crafted and unnerving portents, and Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score thrums with existential dread—the anxiety of reaching the boundaries of what we know. There’s the DNA of Alien in the movie’s opening passages. The fear of the enormous alien ships’ arrival and their silent vigil. A midnight helicopter ride to a remote location, where a ship (“a shell,” it’s called), rotated on its side, hovers mere feet off of the earth. The humans who litter the military base camp nearby, who are professional but silently stunned. The approach to the alien ship and the ascent into its interior, which is a dark cavern with its own, contrary gravity (when Donnelly jumps from an elevator, the ship’s walls suddenly become a floor and he faceplants for his trouble). The walk to the alien “tank,” where a glass(?) wall divides the astonished humans from the two squid-like alien ambassadors, who live in a gaseous environment. And the little detail of two birds brought along like canaries to suss out alien toxins, their confused chirping underlining certain scenes via subtle background noise.

But the film then turns itself over to scenes of Louise and Ian making strides towards better comprehending the aliens, who are tentacle creatures who spout pictograms out of black ink that holds shape for a few moments before dissipating. This is their language, and Louise must try tirelessly to decipher it, and she does. Many movies are convinced that nothing is more exciting than action heroes and explosions, but often enough I think the most stimulating thing a movie can show is a smart professional doing their job well. If movies are all about empathy, then what can be more involving then showing what people do, and why they do it? Arrival draws us into her struggle, into her obsessiveness, into her and Donnelly’s incredible discoveries. It’s the kind of movie where no one ever says “Eureka!” but they could, and could often and earnestly, and the movie and characters would get away with it. Adams has never been better, and Renner proves once again that he has aged well into leading man status. And the aliens…well, they remain the aliens. Mysterious and off-putting and oddly compelling.

What a smart and good film this. It offers surprises and twists, but ones that enrichen the story without damaging it. There is violence at one point, but it’s not sensationalized violence—it’s perpetrated mainly by people who “watched too much cable news” (hmm). There aren’t any dumb jokes or glib one-liners. All the effects serve a purpose. Not a wasted note. The story trusts the fascination of seeing these beings try to connect before the world retaliates—there are brief cutaways to what’s happening globally, but for the most part the movie stays small and intimate like it should, and much like the short story on which it’s based (“Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang–adapted to feature length by Eric Heisserrer, who has done a yeoman’s job).

And through it all, the brain teasers get more puzzling, and the world gets more frightened, and the heroes get more bold, and the military gets more reactionary. And yet there’s hope and perseverance. It’s a gentle reminder of the grand legacy of hopeful science fiction, where strong people work against humanity’s built-in foibles, and elevate the species by staying resilient. That this is something we need right now, I think, really goes without saying. I’ll say it anyway, though.

For Villeneuve, Arrival marks his full emergence as a gifted director—one to watch. I admired his Prisoners and Enemy, and loved Sicario for its visceral nature and Emily Blunt’s commanding performance, but for the first time he’s picked a story that fully blossoms, and opens up a new series of tones for him to work with. It’s a major breakthrough and a marker for an exciting career to come. Next on his docket is a sequel to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, and one might have wondered up until now whether he had it in him to honor that series’ name and make a brilliant science fiction movie. But I don’t wonder anymore about that. Because he’s already made one, and then some. Arrival is one of the best films of the year, period.

“Arrival” is now playing in theaters everywhere.