Amy Adams is having a pretty great year. It’s only going to get better. With two top-flight films at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, she’s this year’s Benedict Cumberbatch. I already wrote about her note-perfect performance as the love-lorn gallery curator in Tom Ford’s chilly noir Nocturnal Animals. Her role in Denis Villeneuve’s cerebral sci-fi feature Arrival is even better. The movie is pretty great, too. But Amy, she should clear some space on her mantle.
Following on the heels of last year’s well-received Sicario, Denis Villeneuve is on a bit of a roll himself. Arrival is in the genre of first contact movies, where humanity at last meets an alien species with interstellar travel. Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Contact, The Day the Earth Stood Still all explore such a crucial moment in interesting ways. And then there’s Independence Day. Arrival eschews spectacular landmark-ripping explosions and punchline genocide, instead presenting a wonderfully subdued, thoughtful film that still musters plenty of unease and tension.
Like last year’s The Martian from Ridley Scott, Arrival distinguishes itself by buying into the science, and showing the work and wonder of figuring things out. Amy Adams is Dr. Louise Banks, a linguist at the top of her field. She’s teaching a university class when her students’ phones start going off, a text ping here, a phone call there. Annoyance flashes across her face, but it’s pretty clear that *something big* is happening. One of the students tells her to turn on the TV, and sure enough, it’s colossal. Twelve giant alien spaceships have arrived at different locations around the globe, and are now inscrutably hovering over the terrified and amazed people below. Dr. Banks is recruited by Colonel Weber (a terse Forest Whitaker) along with a physicist, Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), to determine the essential question, what do the aliens want?
The meeting is wondrous and unnerving. Sealed into biohazard suits, Banks and Donnelly are accompanied by a military squad into the heart of the shell, a 1500 foot tall ship shaped like a flattened egg. Entering through the bottom, their mechanical lift only takes them partway up a large dark shaft, and then they have to hop off, as the gravity of the chute alters to allow them to walk up the wall. At the summit, they enter a large chamber with a transparent wall at one end. The aliens, seemingly amphibious multi legged creatures that look like a cross between an octopus and an insect, are dubbed heptapods. As Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score blasts a long brassy chord, the aliens appear from inside swirling white, whether liquid or fog, on the other side of the wall. Their language, a wide-ranging rush of whale song screeches and basso, is beyond human capability. Dr. Banks determines that deciphering a written language is the only way they’ll be able to communicate.
Colonel Weber wants a fast solution, but cracking the code of the alien hieroglyphic language is a slow-going effort. The heptapods squirt beautifully complex ink circles onto the barrier wall that denote meaning with the placement of spurs and extra lines. Banks makes it clear that key concepts have to be shared first, before a vocabulary can be built. Otherwise, essentials like the difference between a weapon and a tool could be completely missed. Meanwhile, global tensions escalate. China and Russia are particularly unnerved by the ships in their airspace. And domestic troubles are brewing as well, even the soldiers in the camp tuning into alarmist broadcasts spreading fears of plague and conquest.
Those threads remains largely in the background, as Villeneuve wisely stays focused on Dr. Banks and her quest. The film opens with a melancholy passage, Banks remembering her daughter growing up and dying of cancer. The memories of teaching her daughter language help Banks crack the code, while giving us insight into her loneliness and drive. Weeks pass as she and Donnelly strive to unlock the secrets of the alien language, while Weber tries to assuage his superiors. Renner isn’t given a lot to do as the physicist, but the growing bond of respect and affection he has for Banks is palpable.
Sci-fi stories often feel the need to add in some dramatic hokum, presumably to make the effort of being sciencey palatable. The endings of Contact and Interstellar are particularly egregious in this regard, with visions of Jody Foster’s dead father or the idiotic bafflegab of love is the fifth dimension (really Christopher Nolan? Really??). Arrival‘s sentimental side earns its place, though. Banks’s recollections of her daughter seem like an effort at humanizing her, but prove strangely central to the plot, eventually revealing the ways in which Louise Banks is unlike anyone. What at first seems like extraneous emotionality for the sake of dramatic investment is transformed into wrenching revelation by the film’s end.
Arrival is great at going to the places that so many contemporary science fiction films never go. With a little patience, the film proves that discovery and connection are the richest rewards.