Future excavators of historical coincidence should have a field-workday with the fact that a film about alien-descent and translation happened to land just days after so many worldwide were stunned and appalled by the ascent of a creature known as “Trump” to the White House, an arrival demanding yet defying translation. Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival—adapting Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life—is also, aptly for these times, concerned with our unity and divisiveness. Mainly, though, with its eerie lyricism and moody musicality, it re-infects sci-fi with an outbreak of the wondrous-strange and it’s quite possibly this year’s best mainstream release.
Framed intriguingly by a short, stabbing story of grief, the main action’s actually about inaction—not responding to ETs-come-to-our-home with military force. When twelve ships arrive at spots around the globe, the United States army brings linguistics professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams) to the massive craft hovering just off the ground in Montana. Alongside physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), Banks makes contact with the large, giant squid-like creatures (soon called heptapods). Their speech seems half-warble, half-whalesong, but their starfish-like tentacle-ends release a swirling, smoky substance, curling into a complex language of circular symbols. As other military powers get more jittery about the apparent threat, Banks and Donnelly race to decode the heptapods’ language and purpose on our planet.
Villeneuve’s control of tone—uncanny-sublime—is masterful. Any conventional plotting is mostly replaced with lilting memories and dreamy sequences, with Adams’ character a fascinating mix of the rational, instinctive, and emotional. The film seems to be taking us closer to the truth of the heptapods when it’s actually leading us steadily into Banks’ head. There are icy blues, inky blacks, and autumnal yellows; Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score is chilling.
But it’s the film’s dancing with film-language—playing with time through jump cuts, special-effects, and voiceover; the scrim-like barrier behind which the heptapods appear is like a white movie-screen—which ultimately makes its fusion of the personally-human and the beyond-our-world so lyrical and moving. It’s remarkable how far Villeneuve (Prisoners, Sicario), too, has travelled—from minor but impressive Quebec features to big-budget filmmaking that’s turned mainstream genre-fare into thrilling, atmosphere-rich cinema.