Arrival is a near-flawless film. Although billed as a science fiction movie, it is a deeply spiritual and humanistic meditation on life, death, love, and time. Story, music, direction, and acting all combine to produce one of the best films of the year, a movie that provokes deep thought and rewards repeated viewings. Spoiler alert: I’m going to be giving away keep plot points in Arrival, so stop reading if you plan on seeing the film.
Its plot couldn’t seem more clichéd: Aliens invade the world and America dispatches the military and it best scientist to deal with the potential threat. Yet there are no explosions, lasers beams, or shiny white interiors of alien spacecraft. Instead, French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve creates a tone of tenderness, earthiness, and subtlety that serves the story, which is about the nature of time and our relationship to it, and what would happen if that relationship were suddenly changed. This is not an action picture, although there is action, but a film that takes place in the subconscious and the soul.
The story focuses on Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguist who specializes in rare languages. She is contacted by the military, who want her to attempt communication with the newly arrived aliens. The first hour of Arrival is absolutely mesmerizing. Villeneuve keeps the camera mostly still, letting the scenes build drama simply through the power of what they are depicting.
“I used to think this was the beginning of your story,” Dr. Banks says over softly lit shots of her with her newborn daughter. There follow shots of a hospital room and that same daughter’s death while still a young girl. The odd thing about these visions is that Dr. Banks has no children. Is she hallucinating? We then cut to a group of spaceships that resemble huge black eggs and have planted themselves at various locations around the globe.
Dr. Banks is pressed into service as an interplanetary translator, aided by a theoretical physicist, Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner). Adams and Renner beautifully underplay their characters, offering an intelligent reflective stillness. “The cornerstone of civilization is language,” Dr. Banks says. Donnelly counters that “the cornerstone of civilization isn’t language, it’s science.”
Arrival seems like a lot of random scenes at first, but as the story moves along the threads begin to come together. It is based on a piece of short fiction by Ted Chiang called “The Story of Your Life,” which centers on the concept of linguistic relativity, or the Sapir-Worf hypothesis. This hypothesis says that a language’s structure directly affects a being’s thought processes or cognition—in short, learning a new language causes rewiring in the brain.
The question becomes, what if “Whorfianism,” as it’s called, could be used on a reality-shattering scale? Is there is a language we could learn that would alter our brains to the point of allowing us to see time not as a line stretching into an unknown future, but as a picture whose beginning and end we can view? If you could see your entire life, not just the joy but the pain, would you still choose to live it? This is the mystery that Arrival unravels. Dr. Banks is not having flashbacks. She’s having flash-forwards.
The movie’s suspense comes when the aliens, attempting to offer their language, produce a message that ominously translates to “Offer weapon” in English and similar phrases in other languages. The nations of the world, particularly China, interpret this as a threat, and scramble forces to attack the alien pods. Only Dr. Banks knows that the alien language is so complex that “weapon” could have a another meaning, such as “tool,” and she and Ian set about staving off disaster.
Arrival flags a little in the second half, and indulges in Hollywood clichés about the military. Dr. Banks’s military contact, Colonel Webber (Forest Whitaker), is too by-the-book, displaying a lack of awe and scientific curiosity that does not represented the best and brightest who wear the uniform of our country. The scene premised on the deranging effects of talk radio plays like a Michael Moore fever dream.
It also would be nice if the central concept were fleshed out a bit more—one or two bathroom breaks at the wrong time and a viewer would be completely lost. Still, nearly every frame of Arrival is rich with art. The acting is superb, and the music, by minimalist Norwegian composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, with an additional song by Max Richter, offers space for the contemplation that the screenplay by Eric Heisserer offers. Bradford Young’s dreamy cinematography focuses on the small moments of love, tenderness, and grief that we carry through our personal journeys through time. The moments where Louise Banks views her life and sees that, at the heart of everything, the grief and the joy alike, is an innate goodness—what Christopher Lasch called “the goodness of being”—are exhilarating. Arrival is cerebral and soulful science fiction of a high order.