Linguistics professor Dr Louise Banks (Amy Adams) finds herself at the centre of a worldwide panic when 12 mysterious alien crafts land on random parts of Earth with no warning or clue as to their intent. When contact is made, it’s up to Louise to decipher their beautiful yet perplexing written language before the panic breaks out into war.
Based on the short story “Story of Your Life” by the multi-award winning writer Ted Chiang, Arrival hits a number of familiar sci-fi beats yet opens like a puzzle box, revealing surprises as well as a potent emotional punch that’s equal parts hopeful and heart-wrenching. Director Denis Villeneuve’s film seems rooted in realism – the aliens are typical tentacle creatures, the space-crafts stone-like obelisks free of colour and flourish – yet this deceptively simple visuals shift to reveal countless moments of striking beauty: The gravity defying trip inside the craft; the “hand to hand” contact between Louise and one of the visitors; the wave of clouds flowing down the valleys.
Don’t be fooled by the unfussy nature of the proceedings – this is a deeply complex and empathetic story, and one that trusts its audience to keep up with often dizzying discussions of linguistics and translation. Eric Heisserer‘s script is wordy but not overwhelmingly so; intelligent yet proudly free of condescension. For a story so cerebral in nature – as Chiang’s work often is – Villeneuve is happy to let the script take a back seat to allow the visuals to do the work. Where Chiang’s story is a character focused piece, a more momentum forwarding plot regarding the various world responses to the crafts is added, and it feels organic to the central tale of Louise and her journey.
Louise, played with predictable excellence and wholehearted humanity by Amy Adams, is an intellect but beyond that she’s an optimist: The power of language to bring the world – and universe – together bolsters her belief in the importance of her work, even as the military demand quick and easy answers. As the only woman in the circle of influence, or at least the only one able to get a seat at the table during this crisis, she faces eyerolls and cynicism with every development, but her resilience thrives. Her immersion in the language of the creatures reaps rewards she struggles to comprehend, and disconcerting flashes of her daughter’s life force her to confront the most earth shattering of realities. To say anymore would ruin one of the most elegantly handled storylines in film of all year, but it’s a true testament to Villeneuve and Heisserer’s skill that would could so easily have been clumsy and saccharine instead lands with such empathetic force.
Arrival easily stands as one of the highlights of the cinematic year. While the final couple of minutes steps into the kind of bloodless sentimentality it had worked so hard to avoid throughout its running time, what precedes it is a skillfully executed balance of art and science, sharply adapted from difficult material and anchored by one of the best actresses of her generation. We could all use a bit of hope right now, and Arrival’s vision inspires it by the ton.