Having watched Amy Adams slow burn intensity in the thriller Nocturnal Animals it was odd to see her give almost the same performance in Arrival, her latest offering, a science fiction story this time. We get the same type of flashbacks to moments with her past family, and a speech delivery that is so weak in tone we want to shout, “Speak up, for god’s sake!” At least she ditches that annoying wedge of red hair she had in Nocturnal Animals that hid half her face for a great deal of the film.
Director Denis Villeneuve carries a glacially slow plot to its final conclusion and, silly moments aside – and there are a few – he manages to hold our attention all the way. His camera never remains still, which is just as well, considering there are only three sets, the lounge in a domestic house, an army base camp next to an egg-pod in Montana, and an extra-terrestrial’s spaceship. The space ship is a giant dish, more half-egg that manages to defy gravity and remain motionless, hanging in the sky, it’s pointy end pointing at the ground. Twelve egg-shaped spaceships appear in different countries around the world. That makes a change from our alien visitors only ever dropping in on Arizona.
Villeneuve has a good eye for creating other worlds that unsettle us the voyeur, in the excellent Sicario, Prisoners and Enemy. His forte seems to be mood pieces with a woman in the central role. He is at his best when not trying to navigate through conventional story beats and resolutions. Which might be why Arrival is an intriguing addition to his curriculum vitae. Its atmosphere is its story. And that atmosphere is admirably supported by Jóhann Jóhansson’s growling score.
Arrival finds Louise (Amy Adams), a grief-stricken linguist, (how else can she emote silent longings?) and Ian (Jeremy Renner), a flirtatious scientist, recruited by the U.S. military to communicate with the aliens, called ‘heptapods’ thanks to their seven long tentacles. To my eyes they looked like a pair of hands draped in grey rubber gloves.
You’d think the first person the US army would go to for help is their own eminent linguistic expert Noam Chomsky, but no, they drop in on Louise to rescue them from their inability to speak Heptapodis.
Hearing a recording of their inchoate wailing – part whale song, part nails on a blackboard – Louise does the common sense thing and decides she has to meet them in order to see their lips move. That’s when she discovers their language is not spoken but written, written, that is, in smoke signals. To find out why the creatures chose planet Earth for their holidays and – being a Hollywood movie – whether they come in peace or cousins to murdering Triffids, Louise and Ian try to master this nonlinear language.
This is a film that tries to blend the metaphysical with the metaphorical. It succeeds. Actors, director, and tones of grey hold the mood throughout. Adams employs her mastery of melancholic curiosity to gives us her quietly suffering character, but one firm in the certainties of her vocation.
The story is interspersed with moments of Louise and her young daughter enjoying their companionship until fate decides to screw things up. “I’m not sure I believe in beginnings and endings,” Louise says, before finding purpose again in her life and saving the planet from self-destruction. When you watch those moments your mind wanders to Trump and what crazy things he will do in the interests of making America great again.
The screenplay is an adaptation of Ted Chiang’s acclaimed 1998 novella Story of Your Life. The egg-pod in China gets the Chinese Liberation Army all upset, ready to blast it to smithereens. Chinese portrayed as the slowest nation to understand the alien’s sign language is wholly at odds with their understanding of sophisticated calligraphy, based on hundreds of characters, and the beautiful craft of writing them with the flourish of a simple brushstroke. Then again, this is aliens from an American perspective.
I am happy to report writer, Eric Heisserer, and director keep the love interest subdued for most of the film’s length, but as expected, can’t help themselves from letting go in the last moments causing the plot to go all soppy, turning respect by two individuals for each other into carnal gratification. As in so many sci-fi stories, grief has to be transcended solved with consummating a relationship.
At one point the plot becomes intellectually minded. A character mentions the ‘Sapir-Whorf hypothesis’ – the notion language you speak determines the way you think. I remember making by German teacher laugh when, in all innocence I asked if German people thought in English. How could they understand what they were speaking unless they could interpret it as they spoke? Well…
Anyone who is bilingual will tell you that there is truth in the idea that the structure of a given language can dictate how you feel and it will determine your actions. It’s like having a cold shower or a warm shower, you react differently to the same thing. I heard a linguist suggest it was similar to getting out of your sports car, and driving off in a Jeep. You drive differently, you act differently. Language creates its own reality. The film, and one supposes, Heisserer the screenwriter, appear to be exploring those ideas.
There are clichés. The more humanity learns about the aliens, the more humanity fears them. Given enough time and misunderstandings it does not take long to have everybody rushing for a rifle, machine gun, and tank. But we are spared the cliché of old newsreels showing tin helmeted service men mobilising and setting off at a pace to save civilisation from those commie inculcated aliens.
Like Mel Gibson’s Signs, about a family seeing weird crop circles, for most of its running time Arrival is captivating, engrossing, and strangely moving – a sci-fi movie that looks not up at the stars, but inside ourselves.
- Star rating: Three stars
- Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy, Renner, Forest Whitaker
- Director: Denis Villeneuve
- Writer: Eric Heisserer
- Cinematographer: Bradford Young
- Music: Jóhann Jóhansson
- Duration: 1 hour 56 minutes