Arrival: Language and the Averted Apocalypse


Arrival is not an ordinary alien movie. There are no flamboyant invasions of Earth, unexpected murders of innocent humans, or Yoda-like gurus. And it’s precisely because of this that this Amy Adams adventure turns out to be entertaining, absorbing, and stimulating. It lacks the stamina and precision to completely flesh out everything it starts, but what it has still does the sci-fi genre proud. Hollywood’s 2016 is undeniably better off because of this film’s efforts.

At the start of the movie, Louise Banks (Adams) is a world-renowned professor of linguistics, fluent in languages as disparate as Portuguese and Farsi. Single and somewhat depressed after the death of her daughter, she makes a living balancing teaching and the occasional translation job for the U.S. government. One day, an army colonel (Forest Whitaker) shows up at her office and gives her a new task: 12 strange alien pods have touched down at various locations across the planet, including one in Montana. Nobody has any idea what these aliens want or where they come from, so it falls to Banks and a theoretical physicist (Jeremy Renner) to figure out the aliens’ language and establish a channel of communication with them. And they have to do it fast: public discontent over the spaceships is growing, and the Russian and Chinese governments appear to be waiting for any excuse to engage in direct military confrontation.

What makes Arrival better than a lot of movies is quite simple: it has drive. Instead of submitting to the temptations of cheap visual spectacle, it focuses its energies on creating an intricate, meaningful story out of a misleadingly basic premise. By now, the world has become so interconnected that it’s easy to forget the power language barriers once had, how the tiniest misunderstandings could literally have precipitated into all-out war. Here, director Denis Villeneuve returns us to that harsh, primitive, no-guesswork-allowed state. He harnesses everything in his grasp – kudos to the brilliant, understated effects and score – to construct an engrossing, artful portrayal of one person’s block-by-block attempts to form a bridge between two worlds. And along the way, he throws in a bunch of mind-twisting ideas to make sure your brain never stops spinning.

This isn’t to say that you’ll readily buy everything that happens. For one, the resolution relies on an extreme version of a linguistic theory whose application to all known languages has been disproved many times; the movie never stops to really explain why said theory would suddenly have relevance with a language of aliens instead. Moreover, even if you accept the use of this theory, the movie punts on the details of how it helps Dr. Banks with her particular mission. The last 30 minutes, a jumble of fast-paced scenes that ends with Dr. Banks somehow figuring out everything, are maddeningly opaque, as if the movie is deliberately trying to avoid providing complete answers to the questions it raises. Weird endings are a hallmark of sci-fi movies – think Interstellar and 2001: A Space Odyssey – and they usually do have nuggets of insight buried deep within them. Yet in this particular case, the movie definitely could have afforded to provide some more clarity.

Aside from that, the other big problem with Arrival is its uneven treatment of its characters. The performances are all good, particularly Adams’; she brings a raw, convincing combination of fragility and resilience to her every moment on screen. As a character, however, Dr. Banks comes off as a wimp compared to her male colleagues in the investigation. While the movie regularly depicts her as suffering from debilitating bouts of anxiety and emotional stress, you’ll never see even a bead of sweat on Renner and Whitaker’s brows, as if neither of them has any similar trouble coming to terms with the stakes of their mission. At some points, there are scenes that fit all too well into the “kind, tough man helps the damsel in distress” trope. It’s true that Adams is the main character with a legitimately painful backstory, and Renner and Whitaker’s roles are not crucial enough to the plot to be worth serious development. Yet the end result is that these characters often inadvertently play into gender stereotypes.

All that said, this movie definitely merits a good, careful watch. It has issues, but it really does make you think, a rare quality that deserves our appreciation. Altogether, I’d say its overarching premise and purpose are compelling enough to withstand its leaps of faith with the nuances. When you leave the theater, you’ll be bemused, perhaps even annoyed. Yet this is one of those films that, no matter how you nitpick it or try to tear it apart, you just won’t be able to get out of your head. That in itself is enough to call this a success.

Arrival (2016)

Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker

Running Time: 122 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Produced by: Dan Levine, Shawn Levy, David Linde, Karen Lunder, Aaron Ryder

Directed by: Denis Villeneuve

Written by: Eric Heisserer

Based on Ted Chiang’s 1998 short story Story of Your Life.