It’s hard to adequately describe the immensity of the ambition of Denis Villeneuve‘s “Arrival,” a film that dances with concepts so colossal they’ve rather obliterated most of the previous films that have attempted to grapple with them (Robert Zemeckis‘ “Contact” and Christopher Nolan‘s “Interstellar” come to mind). But “Arrival,” the shimmering apex of Villeneuve’s run of form that started back in 2010 with “Incendies,” calmly, unfussily and with superb craft, thinks its way out of the black hole that tends to open up when ideas like time travel, alien contact and the next phase of human evolution are bandied about. A great deal of the credit must go to the remarkable short story on which Eric Heisserer‘s restrained script is based (“The Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang), but it’s Villeneuve’s dedicated intelligence that brings it off the page and onto the screen with an apparent simplicity that connotes a refreshing faith not just in the material, but in the audience. It’s a monolith, a megalith, but like the gigantic alien craft that comes to rest somewhere above Montana at the start of the film, despite its immensity it hovers elegantly overhead. The film defies gravity.
Unlikely though it is that many will be going to a Denis Villeneuve film expecting a thuddunking alien shoot-em-up, let’s state for the record that while on a higher level the story offers a desperately hopeful possibility of escape (for humanity, I’m not even kidding), it is anything but escapist. The moment you realize “Arrival” might force you to engage in that most un-blockbustery of activities — thinking — is when the first signal comes from the beings in the craft, and it looks like a coffee mug ring crossed with a Rorschach ink blot. This is a language, explains Amy Adams‘ beautifully human Dr. Louise Banks, the linguistics expert more or less pulled from her bed by the military to try and establish communication, in which the written form bears no relationship to sounds, only meanings. This is already a tough principle for native speakers of any language that uses an alphabet to get their heads around, and it’s hinted that perhaps the Chinese, who also have a spaceship hovering over their territory (there are 12 in total), have a quicker grasp on it, and communicate via mah jong tiles. But wait, there’s more! — the reason the alien language has no relationship to sound is because sound is temporal (as in, it takes time to talk) and these “sentences” are structured atemporally (hence the circular nature, presumably) with all concepts existing at the same time. Whether you find these relatively arcane linguistics theories at all sexy will no doubt determine your mileage with “Arrival” but to some of us there’s a thrilling beauty in this idea alone.
Yet for a film so preternaturally involved in the deep roots of language and communication (its few jokes are riddles about the Sanskrit word for war and the etymology of the word “kangaroo”) Heisserer’s script is surprisingly unwordy. The Sapir-Whorf concept, which posits that language determines how we think and suggests that full immersion in a foreign language might therefore be a way to change the workings of the mind at the most basic level, is casually referenced despite being the crux of the plot. Instead Bradford Young‘s visuals do a great deal of the storytelling, along with Adams’ exceptional performance, the evocative sound design and Jóhann Jóhannsson‘s insta-classic strings-based score (when the aliens come, let there be cellos).
Shot with a clever duality by Young, the film exists in the desaturated, chilly “now” and the nostalgic, honeyed “then” — the latter coming to the fore in montages that will inevitably and rather tiresomely invoke Malick comparisons, though their function here is completely different. Louise and physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner, in a terrifically generous supporting role) are the civilian experts who end up establishing a relationship with the two alien occupants of the craft, whom they nickname Abbott and Costello, in a believably reflexive impulse to render them a little less scary (like the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man of “Ghostbusters“). But of course this is a global event and Louise and Ian do not just have the U.S. government, represented by Michael Stuhlbarg‘s Agent Halpern, and the U.S. military, represented by Forest Whitaker‘s Colonel Weber to contend with. There is also the ticking clock of the fact that there are 11 other nations facing the same existential problem, and some of them are more skittish than others.
Actually, the political context and the subplot about a rebellion within the ranks of the soldiers, are perhaps the least engaging parts of the film and contribute to a slightly saggy middle third. It’s not that it’s poorly handled, merely that it feels a little familiar when the concepts that the film fences with through Louise’s storyline are so much more compelling. She starts to have episodes, flashes of scenes with her daughter — as a baby, as a child — and they leave her disoriented even as she must continue the slow, urgent work of establishing a mutually comprehensible language. In Louise, brought to life with such sensitivity in Adams’ quietly huge performance, the other major theme of the film comes to the fore. The paradox of the notion of first contact is that no matter how exemplary the person you choose, any “representative of all humanity” will be primarily an individual, they will have had a life up that point, suffered tragedies, endured pain, known joy and humiliation and in no two people is that precise cocktail the same. It seems possible that the film will suggest that there really is no such concept as “people” just individuals, but by the end, that idea comes an encompassing full circle, and you understand, better than before, that of course there is such thing as a collective humanity. There are questions and fears that are so fundamental that they’re shared by the most idealistic of linguistic professors and the most bellicose of Chinese generals, and when the story takes us there, it is immeasurably moving.
That is what happens in a third act which is perhaps an all-time great example of how to release the massive power that your considered pacing has been quietly accumulating the whole time, and one of the cleverest uses of non-chronological storytelling in memory. The slow build to the grand reveal is the most impressive aspect of “Arrival,” because most films that ask Big Questions flake out at supplying an answer. And that’s only to be expected: if you really knew the secrets of the universe would your first thought be to write them into a screenplay? But “Arrival” gets better as it goes on, pursues its logic to its furthest extreme and beyond. It doesn’t just theorize, it comes to a conclusion.
It’s ingrained so deeply in Western culture that science and art are oppositional disciplines, that math and physics belong to one branch of endeavor and creativity, expressiveness and philosophy to another. And that is why great science fiction cinema — and this is great science fiction cinema — can feel like such a pre-eminent genre. Here, using an art form that was itself born of technology, we get to venture out past those simplistic binaries to where there is poetry in mathematics and physics in philosophy — out into the frontiers of our universe and our power to comprehend where science and art are the very same thing. “Arrival” brings us there, and though the conclusions are earthbound and have so much to do with the nature of humanity and our relationship to mortality, my God, they’re full of stars. [A-]