That we take language for granted is one of the greatest examples of both its ubiquity and its essential mystery. You are reading these words and translating them into a voice in your head, a voice that maybe has your own cadence and timbre, making you believe it is your own, but the words and ideas and the sequence of their emergence from the nothingness of your mind are all chosen by me, the author. Language is a form of magic, made to communicate the external to the internal and the internal to the external. We begin with spoken words, then move on to the bizarre alchemy of writing. We know what each letter means, how it melds into a word, what those words mean to be or evoke. R-A-T and T-A-R are made of the same building blocks, and yet in those orders they say two different things, and each of those things has innumerable and flexible meanings. As important as language is, it is full of holes. Yet it forges the paths of our thought, dictating how we see and interpret the world.
Nearly two-hundred words written, and the surface of the magic of language has barely been touched. Arrival, the newest film from Denis Villeneuve, who previously gave us Enemy and Sicario, takes up language and its under-realize importance as its principle plot device. To the film’s credit, it makes the intricacies of language and understanding at once powerful and thrilling in equal measure and then uses that inherent academic interest to drill into a very human, very moving story.
Amy Adams plays Dr. Louise Banks, a university professor who specializes in language both in terms of translation and etymology. Following the arrival of 12 extraterrestrial space craft all over the world, she is recruited by the U.S. military (in the person of Forest Whitaker) to attempt to establish meaningful communication with the alien lifeforms. It is a seemingly impossible task, even with the full resources of the military and the aid of theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) backing her up. All the same, it isn’t long before words are being exchanged, and with those exchanges the question of intent and meaning become more important and pressing than ever.
As any fan of his work might expect, Villeneuve frames each shot and scene for maximum effect, creating a sense of alienation and otherness out of every single location. His talent is for making the every day seem bizarre, for finding angles and compositions that emphasize the strangeness of the world as it is, so that by the time layers begin peeling back the otherness of the plot can fit perfectly into the world of the story. This is done here on a large scale with one scene in particular, when the welcoming team from earth enters the space ship in Montana, moving straight up before entering a gravity well that allows the team to turn and walk “up” the “wall” of the ship as though it were a floor.
This visual immersion and re-orientation is reflected in the language-based plot. Dr. Banks makes a point of clearly elucidating every potential trap that one might fall into while parsing language to her team, at the same time giving this information to the audience so that they might also become part of the team. The result is a wholly engrossing experience that treats both the eyes and the mind to a subtle acrobatic exercise, entertaining and wowing as it thrills and beguiles.
While this isn’t a surprise coming from Villeneuve, the raw, beating heart that drives the final act of the film most certainly is. From Prisoners to Sicario, Villeneuve has proven himself to be a visual stylist with a knack for puzzles and plot, but he’s never truly flexed his emotional muscles. With Arrival, he makes up for this previous deficiency ten-fold.
Amy Adams brings every ounce of talent that she has to bear on her role, making Dr. Banks at once a dogged and compelling detective that the audience can root for while never losing sight of her inherent human frailty. Her ticks and exhaustion give way to an intellectual second wind that finds itself hammering against a growing and uncontrollable emotional eruption that she seems barely able to contain. While the plot winds itself up in satisfying fashion, it is Banks’s resolution of her personal story that will linger in the mind and inspire conversation and discussion long afterward.
This melding of the fantastical and the emotional will undoubtedly cause issues for some people. Those who walk into Arrival expecting a rollicking science fiction yarn will hopefully find themselves drawn in to the emotional core via Adams’s fantastic performance. If they don’t, they should still draw some interest from the theoretical and academic ideas on display. For anyone willing to lose themselves in the personal story of someone at the heart of this incredible event, however, Arrival will, without a doubt, stand out as one of the best of the year, if not the decade.