If aliens landed ships across the world without any explanation, what would be the world’s first step in addressing the situation?
Directed by Denis Villeneuve (“Prisoners” and “Sicario”), “Arrival” suggests that it would be language. Not guns or bombs. Blockbusters of today would make one think that “Arrival” would feature epic battles. Instead, it’s a heady sci-fi film that plays for intelligence and emotion over spectacle — making it one of the most stunning achievements of the year.
Adapted from Ted Chiang’s short story “Story of Your Life,” “Arrival” picks up with linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) on the first day that 12 alien ships touch down at random locations around Earth — including Russia, Australia and, of course, the United States. Recruited by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to initiate communication with the aliens, Banks travels to the American site in Montana along with theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner).
Banks quickly realizes they’ll never be able to move forward with phonetics, instead making progress with written communication. As she, Donnelly and officials from the U.S. — in collaboration with the other nations that had alien touchdowns — move forward on that front, Banks soon realizes that, if not taken slow enough, meaning can be lost in translation and unintended implications can be made. With turmoil and confusion sprouting from the aliens’ language within the nations involved, will Banks be able to break the barrier before someone takes drastic measures?
“Arrival” was never going to be an action film or even a fast-paced film. And that is to incredible benefit. Its focus on language offers immense intrigue in how Banks approaches a very unstable scenario — before conflict, there must be dialogue. Whereas Colonel Weber immediately wants to ask the question of “What is your purpose on Earth?”, Banks understands that there are so many steps that must be taken first. She needs to introduce the notion of a question, distinguish pronouns, define the word purpose and combine all of the parts. The film crafts Banks’ work with such a steady, convincing and immersive touch, making for some gripping situations and wondrous moments of revelation.
The whole dramatic hook is surrounded by how both individuals and nations communicate. As the film shows not only how a linguist professor and an army official might butt heads, it also illustrates how the public, nations and worlds trying to work together could suffer out of a lack of communication. Villeneuve balances those conflicts and weaves them together with exact precision and steady pacing, creating a massive scope that lends itself well to the small-scale setting.
The film’s cinematic language is absolutely stunning and deeply intimate. Cinematographer Bradford Young — who shot Ava DuVernay’s “Selma” — makes effect of Emmanuel Lubezki-esque slow, drifting pans, Roger Deakins-esque long shots, and shallow focus closeups to perfectly capture the psychological dismay that Banks experiences with first contact. Young will surely take home the Oscar for his work.
In addition, Villeneuve only further cements his label as “the master of atmosphere.” His collaboration with Young, imbued with a rich color palette — this time a dark blue-ish gray — coupled with his pitch perfect composition of tense scenes creates an atmosphere that simultaneously emits dread while allowing for hope to exist. Under his direction, “Arrival” does not waste a single frame.
But Villeneuve does not stop at technical competence. At this point, it is blasphemous not to call him an auteur — artfulness bleeds out of every directorial choice. The Canadian filmmaker channels Stanley Kubrick in the most affecting of ways, especially in how he structures the cold, long shots of the alien ship — reminiscent of Kubrick’s monolith in “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
Villeneuve also looks to the art world, undeniably inspired by the stunning physical-space art of James Turrell when crafting the interior of the ship. The space in which contact occurs almost exactly echoes the chamber-like quality, the soft contours and the infinite window of Turrell’s exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
This crafting of space is not sudden and not without purpose, and neither are choices in other spheres of the film. Villeneuve hints at what’s to come through composing other spaces similarly to that of the space ship, through utilizing dialogue to plant ideas and through structuring shots to imply psychological interiors.
But all of it would only add up to so much had it not been for the film’s emotional dimension. Speaking to the idea that communication forms our perception of the world — the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis — the film links Banks’ investigation into the aliens’ language with Banks’ visions of her daughter, creating a film that is truly about a mother. Amy Adams’ performance is tender and unknowing, lively and explorative. She channels her character’s drive and pain through calculated words with her daughter, emanating pure motherhood.
The delicacy with which that aspect is handled results in an ending that is masterfully, poetically beautiful and utterly heartbreaking. The emotions take away our breath in the ways that they affirm life. In catching that breath and fighting tears, we realize that the film is truly about the beauty in our experiences on this world and the beauty in the love we share.
The film’s message about communication, love and life makes the story universal. “Arrival” is not only a masterpiece of science fiction, but a masterpiece of cinema.