Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
Written by: Eric Heisserer
Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Tzi Ma
Language serves as the ultimate tool of communication between sentient beings. Whether it be through a collection of sounds, written word, or even emojis. When at its apex, proper communication leads to the height of collaboration and where as humans, we develop cures and do the unimaginable. The breakdown of communication offers the opposite where conflict arises and we sink to the worst we have to offer. Arrival balances all of these ideas as it takes a new look at what an alien invasion film could be.
After twelve extraterrestrial spacecraft land on random areas of the world, famous linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) gets recruited by the United States military to help in their efforts to communicate with these aliens. Along with the help of mathematician Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), they try to interpret their language in collaboration with leaders across the globe.
Seeing Arrival for the first time is something I wish I could experience once again. If only my memory could be wiped each time I decided to rewatch it. What started as a film that befuddled me at first, quickly became one of my favorite films ever made, as the impact of the story continued to dwell in my mind days and weeks after the initial viewing. I could not fully grasp everything it was trying to say at first but its message rings clear now.
The film really comes together by combining some of my favorite people in all of cinema. Denis Villeneuve, in my mind, has an impeccable filmography of films that range in texture, messaging, but they’re always intense viewing experiences. Whether it be the hypnotic Enemy, the grueling Sicario, the unforgettable Incendies, the fantastical Blade Runner 2049, or even the harrowing Prisoners. All of them leave an impact well after the closing credits roll. Arrival still remains his unquestionable masterpiece. He often receives accusations of having cold films, but their coldness speaks aplenty about the human condition and who we are at our lowest points. Specifically, with this film, he takes concepts that we have been told to believe and flipped it over on us along with some beautifully astounding visuals.
It comes from the simplicity of the spacecraft that land on Earth. They have this odd shape that makes it difficult to understand how these aliens could possibly operate it. Each of the locations may be random but the way they’re shot magnifies their size and makes it look more threatening than reality may tell. Everything feels cold because the situation provides no warmth. Everyone seems to be on-edge once the aliens survive. When Louise arrives at the military base, a body being rolled out becomes the first thing she sees. No one in the camp attempts to comfort each other or even state that things will be okay because they’re all in uncharted waters. That unrelenting unease makes interactions between Louise and military personnel difficult to comprehend because they have different goals from the very beginning.
With the military officers having their mindset of protection, the first thing they want to learn is whether they represent a threat to humanity. That includes information like who they are and why they are here. It speaks to who we are as humans that we perceive anything to be different as a threat. Those questions would go through many of our minds if it happened today. Why are they here? It even serves as the tagline for the film. We automatically assume that anything that looks different than us will cause us harm. We even have that idealization with fellow humans, thus the continued existence of racism and xenophobia. The aliens simply arrived on Earth and have left their spacecraft hovering above our land. They did not come down on us attacking us or making any threats. This species never touched anything besides our atmosphere.
Louis takes a different approach because being abrupt in that manner will do no one any good. She goes against the grain and simply tries to talk to them and learn about how they speak in order to ensure that humanity does not pose a threat to them. Her method works and she gains more ground than any of the other attempts. Louise feels incredibly tangible as a person because she’s not this expert linguist that knows everything. Even as an acclaimed expert in her field, she steps into the situation and has chills of what she encounters. I’m not sure how many times I have to say this but Amy Adams has been the actor of this millennium. Every performance she puts out there transcends what acting can be and her more reserved work in Arrival further displays the genius of her talent.
The use of language remains the prevailing throughline of the entire narrative and upon the discovery of the alien way of communication, things start to ramp up. The way this species speaks comes through in a circular figure and in the process of breaking down what each symbol suggests, miscommunication rises. It shows the intricate nature of language and that translations don’t always line up perfectly. It makes me think of the two languages I know the best: English and Spanish. Thinking of how different phrases translate between the two can make for quite the puzzle. Now imagine trying the same thing with the alien language and several other nations trying to decode it at the same time. That leads to the largest conflict within the film.
Without giving away any of the reveals, as that would be reviewing malpractice for a film of this stature, the biggest conflict arises from the breakdown in communication as humans. Our perception of threat from these aliens puts everyone in an incredibly tense state where the smallest spark can cause a large flame. Upon one misunderstood phrase being uttered by the aliens, it sets off a blizzard of confusion and frustration that eventually leads to communication channels being terminated. It displays our weakest points as humans and that can go from national leaders to even the relationships you have with friends. Effectively communicating can keep relationships strong and serve as the cure for harm caused. We cannot give up on communication because we face bumps in the road because that will ensure the erosion of progress.
We always say communication is key but rarely do we let that statement marinate. Arrival gives us that opportunity. It recontextualizes how you think of language and the way time operates. From the simplicity of difference from the form of the aliens’ cyclical language, this film gives plenty to think about. The reveals truly bring everything together and wrap up the story in a way that allows you to step into the shoes of Louise and the decisions she needs to make. It features the beautiful composition “On the Nature of Daylight” by Max Richter to underscore the mood and breathe life into moments that may cause despair. I could speak about this film forever. Arrival will be one of the films that I will continue to revisit for the rest of my life to see what more I can get from its story and message. It rewards repeat viewings and reflection because it connects to all of us. Language and communication are inherent and fundamental to the human experience whether it be through the words we say, the non-verbals, with our hands, or our presence. We always communicate something even if doing it unwillingly. How that lands on others defines us and this film gives us the opportunity to strive to reach our apex.