Decoding language is a dynamic exchange. The linguist poses a question, gets a response, then interprets it based on what came before. Watching Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi masterpiece “Arrival” is a similar experience. His narrative unfolds a step ahead of its audience, building from a beautifully acted, emotionally rich, slow-burning drama to a mind-bending twist finale.
Linguistics professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is grieving from a divorce and the death of her daughter when 12 alien orbs land on earth. The U.S. military brings her and mathematician Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to a landing site in Montana to approach the aliens, decipher their language and pose a simple yet crucial question: “What is your purpose on earth?”
Adams’ emotionally transparent but intellectually driven performance ranks among 2016’s best. Renner adapts the charisma of his arrow-wielding hero Hawkeye to a bookish, comical role with ease. Louise and Ian’s romance spans an age-old dichotomy between art and science, but their down-to-earth interactions and subtle flirtations temper the film’s intellectual weight.
“Arrival”’s trailers promised a race between America and other world powers to decode the aliens’ language. Other nations think the aliens arrived to incite war, so when they promise a weapon, the race begins. The first to translate their language gets the upper hand. Villeneuve builds large-scale tension and piles on timely questions of unity versus division and hostility versus pacifism, despite his claustrophobic adherence to Louise’s perspective.
The film is largely confined to tents in a field in Montana, but perfectly timed glimpses of soldiers’ communication rooms and news broadcasts reveal the global stakes of this individual encounter: widespread protests, violent panic and other nations threatening attacks. If nations expect hostility from the aliens, they might provoke a world war with their weapon. If they expect amity, the tool the aliens promise might
“Prisoners” and “Sicario” showed Villeneuve’s mastery of dark drama, incipient suspense and slow horror. “Arrival” is lighter fare, but his introspective tone, attention to detail and deliberate pacing still shine. He emphasizes the human experience of global alien contact. Students’ texts ding, filling Louise’s lecture hall before she learns of alien contact, the helicopter reflection blinks in the frame above Louise’s bed before its roar shakes her awake, the cherry picker slowly raises her and Ian into the dark orb, gravity shifts when they enter a tunnel. Accentuating ordinary details in extraordinary situations, Villeneuve generates Spielbergian wonder but emphasizes unease over spectacle. Beneath “Arrival”’s narrative smolders unexpected mystery. Pay attention to plot holes, emotional flashbacks and uncanny parallels between past and present. Like the inconsistencies Louise works around in the aliens’ language, what many may mistake for narrative flaws are hints to a groundbreaking payoff, and unlike many Hollywood twist endings, this one doesn’t overthrow the previous story or themes. It only enhances them.
Like “Interstellar” or “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Arrival” plunges into the depths of time and perception but surfaces closest to the human heart. Enraptured by the story, we hold on for the ride, drifting away from familiar logic, universal laws and credible science, hoping to emerge enlightened.
“Arrival”’s twist isn’t its centerpiece. It’s icing on the cake of a masterpiece equal parts emotional catharsis and intellectual adventure. An interstellar voyage for the mind and an earth-bound space odyssey for the soul, “Arrival” demands to be seen twice.