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‘Arrival’ Is the Year’s Best, Most Profound Sci-Fi Film

Director Denis Villenueve’s thrilling new film, about humanity’s attempts to communicate with aliens, is at heart fascinated with language and the way it binds us to the past and future.

Arrival is the latest in a long line of “first contact” sci-fi stories, and yet regardless of its familiar premise, its achievements are unique. Striking a delicate balance between dread and hope, Denis Villeneuve’s majestic and magnificent genre work is fundamentally concerned with communication—specifically, humanity’s attempts to strike up a conversation with extraterrestrials who don’t even comprehend the basics behind our native tongues (and vice versa), much less speak them. It’s an out-there saga that, at heart, is fascinated by the intricacies of verbal and written language, and how it binds us to the past and the future in ways both heartbreaking and inspiring. It’s a film about forging a link with great, unknowable others, all so that we might truly understand ourselves.

Don’t worry, though—despite such lofty intentions, Villeneuve’s film is anything but a slog. On the contrary, led by Amy Adams in a performance that, like the material itself, is perched on the precipice between despair and ecstasy, Arrival (based on Ted Chiang’s acclaimed short story “Story of Your Life”) is a thrilling work of science fiction, one that conflates individual and universal concerns via a methodical examination of mankind’s response to the arrival of interstellar beings. Those visitors show up in twelve oblong, stone-grey ships that take up residence at random points around the globe, hovering just above the ground, and their appearance incites both awe and terror in Earth’s population. For famed linguist and professor Dr. Louise Banks (Adams), however, their emergence is the beginning of a journey whose end will be yet another beginning—a circular pattern of life and death that’s foreshadowed by a preface depicting cherished moments from Brooks’ time with her daughter Hannah, who at an early age succumbed to a rare, fatal illness.

Recruited by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) and paired with mathematician-scientist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), Banks quickly finds herself in Montana, where an alien ship is located above a rolling green meadow surrounded by mountains over which—in one of numerous, gorgeous compositions—the fog cascades in menacing waves. Despite American efforts to coordinate intel with other nations (many of which are contending with their own UFOs), little is known about these space travellers, and so Banks and Donnelly are raised up by a mechanical lift into the craft through a small portal (which opens for a period of time every few hours), where they learn that gravity isn’t quite what they expected inside—and that the extraterrestrials waiting for them are anything but human.

To spoil exactly what Banks and Donnelly discover in the ship’s mysterious chambers would be downright criminal, given how expertly Arrival withholds key information in order to stoke anticipation for its every successive (visual and narrative) reveal. Nonetheless, Villeneuve’s handling of this early going is masterful, and on the heels of Prisoners, Enemy and Sicario—and in advance of his Blade Runner 2049 sequel, which suddenly seems right in his wheelhouse—the director’s latest establishes him as mainstream cinema’s finest employer of the widescreen frame. Villeneuve is an artist so assured in his visual framing and staging that most of his material’s sense of menace, and import, comes from the way in which he (alongside ace A Most Violent Year and Selma cinematographer Bradford Young) contrasts light and dark, studied and unsteady camera movements, and eerie quiet and foreboding sonic blaring (courtesy of Sicario composer Jóhann Jóhannsson’s unsettling score).

Never is that more acute than in Banks and Donnelly’s maiden foray into the spacecraft, where they find themselves in a long, dark, down-is-up corridor illuminated only by the bright, foggy light emanating from a room at its far end. Villeneuve’s grand imagery and measured pacing infuse the action with equal parts curiosity, trepidation and excitement. And yet he then repeatedly, and skillfully, juxtaposes that tantalizing tone with a lyrical, emotionally shaky atmosphere in subsequent sequences which, aesthetically as well as thematically, recall Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life—be they flashbacks to Banks’ memorable times with her daughter, or solitary shots of her walking in wide-open plains, the camera echoing her uncertainty and fear in its bobbing, trembling motions.

Throughout, Adams beautifully embodies Arrival’s push-pulls between wonder and alarm, longing and contentment, joy and anguish. Tasked with developing a means of interacting with the aliens before other nations—namely, China and Russia—resort to knee-jerk warmongering, Adams’ Banks exudes a staunch toughness underscored by fragility. Her eyes radiate steely resolve even as her hand, when putting on a Hazmat suit, momentarily trembles, and her quest to find a common interspecies dialect is carried out with an intellectual inquisitiveness—“What is your purpose on Earth?”—that reflects her belief in language as the primary building block of all human life. It’s a star turn of both strength and vulnerability, and even during the material’s hair-raising centerpiece meeting between Banks and the visitors, Adams grounds the out-there action in piercingly relatable euphoria and grief.

Of course, whether between species or nations, creating a constructive way to engage with foreigners turns out to be a tricky undertaking. As its plot’s tensions begin to boil—thanks to possible misinterpretations of the creatures’ pronouncements—Arrival eschews on-the-nose preachiness for a more general study of the vital need for patience, and persistence, on the part of strangers who don’t initially understand each other. That’s especially true for Banks and Donnelly, given that the aliens’ notes come in the form of [minor spoiler alert] bio-sprayed patterns that convey moods more than explicit letters or sentences. Their ability to decipher those designs requires something of an audience leap-of-faith (i.e., the explanations sound better than they probably are), but the underlying idea proffered by the story—that communion is only possible through communication—provides it with powerful poignancy.

The circular shape of the aliens’ messages eventually proves most crucial to Villeneuve’s drama, as it speaks to language’s role in tethering us to our past, present and still-to-come experiences. That notion is also expressed by the name of Banks’ deceased child, “Hannah,” a palindrome split evenly between an identical beginning and end. I’d be lying if I claimed to be unaffected by the part played by “Hannah”—my own daughter’s name—in the tale’s eventual revelations. Yet in a certain sense, that personal art-life connection feels ideally in tune with Arrival, a film that, for all its majestic otherworldly sights, is ultimately about how words and images shape, reveal and remind us of who we are, where we’ve been, and where—as people, as societies, and as a race—we’re headed.