Everyone’s favorite series of tones, gestures, and pauses finally gets its due in Denis Villeneuve’s fine new film. But saying language is used to communicate is like saying my iPhone is used to give me Twitter-induced aneurysms. At face value, it’s an immutable fact, but such a small piece of the potential. Arrival is a movie about language, and language is a map. A map surveyed pebble by tedious pebble until a topography so much bigger than the definition of each individual piece emerges.
Yawn, amirite? Nah, but for real, it’s pretty great. And all of that is merely stone, so let’s talk for a moment about the delicious surrounding cherry. A horde of extra-planetary vessels descend through the atmosphere and settle on various spots of the globe. As is expected, it becomes an international phenomenon, then concern, then crisis, then...well...you know how these things go. Our particular portal to the events concerning these “objects” is the American’s point of view, because who else would you trust but the most rational, reasonable, and forward looking nation on earth? (I assume this film is set Post-Greatening)
We soon realize our experience is going to be lived out through linguistics professor Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner). And hey, yo, quick shout to my Ph.D fam whiling away at small liberal arts colleges, Amy Adams is out’chere making academia cool again. I hope linguistics professors buried deep in course catalogs everywhere jump on this opportunity to see Arrival and then question Dr. Banks instructional scaffolding and overall pedagogy.
As the deliberate structure of the story is an essential component, I’m wary of saying too much more, but we follow Banks and Donnelly’s efforts to know why these visitors are here. The film aches with tension but maintains a certain meditative composure, a perfect aura for this gigantic-yet-tiny film. Drenched in Villeneuve’s potent visual style, his graceful moves between lyrical drama and set piece continue to astound me.
Where our through-line of language serves some beautiful story, I can say with a bit of chagrin: Arrival does not work exceptionally well as a science fiction film. There are substantial facets—Dr. Banks learning to communicate with the visitors proves especially rich—but Arrival suffers from a little Interstellar-itis, its internal logic does not pass the stress test. It’s not anywhere near as terrible-bat-shit as the internal logic of Interstellar, but it dissolves under minimal scrutiny. And the finery of our climax leaves nothing to the imagination, spelled out in hamfisted, explanatory detail. Love and mortality aren’t shorthand for profundity, and our picture doubles down on both.
It’s a minor criticism, and it shouldn’t take away in the least from an otherwise accomplished film. Arrival lingered with me, and resonated with me as a film about grief. Everything with its own language, a series of puzzle pieces fit together, taken apart, and reassembled to uncover meaning. It has nuance and fills space and must be decoded with exhaustive care. And in the context of the film—when we arrive at our central question—it reveals the grief process as more than precise inevitability, or something to be avoided, but the arc of so many transitory joys and sorrows woven into a complete existence.
But, first, it must be given the words.
—By Monte Monreal