Language and the ability to “articulate” our existence is one of the defining characteristics of the human species. Arrival is about the awakening and ensuing trauma discovering that we’re not alone in the universe.
When twelve alien crafts position themselves around the globe, the different countries that are landing zones must use their combined ingenuity to discover a way to communicate with the visitors. The international human effort must work to adopt a new language to determine whether our visitors are uninvited guests or an intergalactic colonising force. Paramount linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and scientist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) lead American efforts in communicating with the aliens (known as the Heptapods) to determine why they’ve come to Earth, desperate to curb the human inclination to destroy our intergalactic visitors.
Writer Eric Heisserer and director Denis Villeneuve take an amazing premise of alien contact and approach it with diplomacy. Arrival feels like a throwback alien encounter film because when our interstellar visitors arrive, the first reaction isn’t to mash the nuclear launch keyboard and obliterate them and the rest of humanity.
Villeneuve anchors the film to the lead performer Adams. There’s an intimacy to the way the camera interacts with Adams that makes it feel like you’re living in her memories and monitoring her perspective. You follow Louise (Adams) like she’s a third person avatar exploring the Montana forward outpost at the site of the “shell” landing. And when Villeneuve needs to establish the context of Adams’ efforts the scope of the film opens up significantly. Villeneuve’s style is a kind of visual braille, as we’re submerged in Louise’s insomnia caused by the magnitude of the task. The results are a kind of wading through her flood of memory. Heisserer and Villeneuve should be commended for their command and manipulation of the way we’re experiencing time because it’s necessary to experience disorientation to get into the headspace of the leading character. The story structure is crafted gracefully and with purpose; that’s about as much as one can possibly touch upon without spoiling your viewing experience.
While you can tell no expense was spared to create the spaces, Villeneuve’s focus on Louise (Adams) renders terrific production design of the military outposts to the blurred background. The interaction space or communication chamber inside the “shell” is refreshingly practical, like our visitors have tried to accommodate an interaction space suited to both species.
Adams’ performance is so engrossing. She’s a hyper intelligent linguist who has a work ethic bordering on masochism. Defying impulses to sleep and pushing herself to a delirium; she maintains a poise and confidence that she’s on the path. Renner is playing against the ‘heavy character’ that you may have seen him portray in films like The Town or The hurt Locker – Oscar winner. He’s got this twinkle of excitement in his eye of a person living in the moment of this event. There’s a presence to his character that is a hopeful night light in the film. While those around him, like Forest Whitaker as Colonel Weber, have an urgency to discover the why because they’re actively being pressured to make the country ready for violence.
Arrival wields the power of language.; Villeneuve wields the power of cinema like a Kill Bill, ‘Hanzo sword.’
Blake Howard – follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman
Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
Written by: Eric Heisserer (based on the story “Story of Your Life” written by Ted Chiang)
Amy Adams … Louise Banks
Jeremy Renner … Ian Donnelly
Forest Whitaker … Colonel Weber
Michael Stuhlbarg … Agent Halpern
Sangita Patel … Newscaster 1
Tzi Ma … General Shang
Abigail Pniowsky … Hannah (8 yrs. old)
Mark O’Brien … Captain Marks
Jadyn Malone … Hannah (6 yr old)
Ruth Chiang … Chinese Scientist
Anana Rydvald … Danish Scientist
Julia Scarlett Dan … Hannah (12 yrs. old)