Like all the best science fiction, Arrival uses heady ideas to illuminate humanity. In the movie, large black pods descend upon the Earth, hovering ominously above twelve, seemingly random, spots on the globe. We don’t know what they want. Armies mobilize. News media chatters endlessly about our anxiety. And with a grim, secret determination, small bands of researchers try to figure out a way to communicate with the extraterrestrial visitors. Their silence is scary. But science just might find a way. We follow one of those teams, a linguist (Amy Adams) and a physicist (Jeremy Renner) recruited by a colonel (Forest Whitaker) to helicopter into the base around the UFO in the wilds of Montana. The object opens every 18 hours, a passageway into which they can climb and attempt to learn the aliens’ language. The mysterious beings hide behind a clear wall, spindly, spidery grey giants in milky off-white fog, uttering their inscrutable otherworldly tones. How we react to them, how we attempt to understand them, will determine the fate of the world. Is that kind of emotional intelligence, that drive to cooperate and understand, within the powers of the human race? After all, it’s so much easier to give into the fear of the unknown, to scapegoat, to shoot first and ask questions never.
Alien visitation narratives can take many forms: the campy, the exciting, the funny, the metaphorical, the ponderous. Director Denis Villeneuve, whose films like Prisoners and Sicario are pulp procedurals told with heavy deliberateness, treats Arrival with great seriousness. Austere, carefully composed images captured by cinematographer Bradford Young tell the story with patience, watching competent people doing their jobs in extraordinary circumstances. Maybe one of the most poignant effects of watching the military and scientists quickly get over their bewilderment and get down to the business of figuring out what to do next step-by-step is its fantasy of competency when faced with unprecedented events. Remember thinking our political and intellectual leaders could withstand such a test? But the movie isn’t safe fantasy. It interrogates the impulses with which mankind would greet such a moment. Some countries send researchers of their own into the UFOs nearest them, eager to share research with colleagues at other sites. Some countries lock down, militarize, and greet news of others’ discoveries with suspicion. One wrong move could bring unknowable consequences. Will one bad faith act wreck the planet for us all?
Villeneuve, working in the shadow of 2001 and Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Contact, in which scientific process is diligently portrayed until leaping into pure poetry at the point of its most beautiful conjectures, imagines the events with cautiousness and precision. If this were to happen, this might be how it’d go down. There’s a tick-tock element of professionalism to the researcher’s routines. We see them pouring over data and fitfully sleeping before it’s time to go into the UFO again, hands shaking as they attempt new techniques of communication. The progress is slow. The stakes are high. Everyone moves as if in a daze, determined to get it right, too overwhelmed to register how mind-bending and world changing their position is. Villeneuve, so good at conjuring dread and awe, uses every ounce of his ability to give these events their full weight. We stare up at the massive edifice of the object, stare in wonder at its enormity, its unusual construction. It dwarfs the actors who move up into it. Clouds roll by. Below, the humans wait for its next move, if it will ever come. It’s a beautiful and terrifying unknown.
The impeccable craftsmanship of the film gives it its unshakeable mood, and its dizzying intensity. With a story like this one, equal parts mystery and reverence for what other filmmakers could’ve easily turned silly, tone is crucial. By maintaining tight control over the soft light and somber soundtrack, the eerie alien creaking and clunking and crisp man-made tools clicking and clacking, Villeneuve keeps the proceedings compelling in their stillness, their intellectual puzzling, and slowly accumulating power. The film begins with the story of Amy Adams’ linguist losing a loved one (earning weeping faster than any film since Up), associating the earthshaking discovery with death, grief and fear mingling as one melancholy unknown. This backstory is shuffled into the background as the film gets down to business, informing the emotional terrain subtextually. But as it bubbles back up, the film reveals its full intentions, melding a massive coldness with subtle warmth, tenderness invading the foreboding.
Screenwriter Eric Heisserer’s reverent expansion of the short story by Ted Chiang – one of our greatest sci-fi authors – faithfully recreates the full, breathtaking, head-spinning melding of real emotion and speculative fact. How fulfilling it is to be confronted with big budget sci-fi spectacle that actually grows more complicated and confounding as it goes along. So often these things start with provocative questions then funnel into a routine battle or cliché confrontation. Here, it’s a what-if scenario played out with respect for its characters’ weary commitment to facts and faith in the power of process. They aren’t gilded with subplots about interpersonal conflict. Instead, they have a job to do, and the plot is studded with smart suppositions and clever obstacles: an uncooperative foreign military, a soldier quietly radicalized by right-wing conspiracy websites, the adverse effects of little sleep and lots of stress. It asks a familiar question – what is one fleeting human life in the fullness of time and space? – in a gripping intellectual thought experiment procedural, and finds in the end not a puzzle-solving solution, but beautifully poetic answers in a way only this genre could find.