starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker
screenplay by Eric Heisserer, based on the story "Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang
directed by Denis Villeneuve
by Walter Chaw Based on a humdinger of a Ted Chiang short story called "Story of Your Life," Denis Villeneuve's Arrival, while changing a detail here and there, distils the emotionality of the story, honours the science of it, and goes places the premise naturally indicates that it might. It clarifies without simplifying. It posits as its hero Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams, who has never been better), a brilliant linguistics professor enlisted by the military to try to communicate with the things in the giant spacecraft that have appeared in twelve different locations around the planet. Not all of them, mind--just the ones in Montana. The others are their problem. Arrival suggests that the first complication of this story of our lives is that there are pronouns other than "us" in matters of international import. It reminds of The Abyss in its tale of an alien arrival that requires human cooperation, but whose purpose doesn't appear to be to coerce a response through a show of force. They just hang there, waiting for us to learn their language. That's an important point. It's something to think about.
Louise is paired with Dr. Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a physicist who wants to compare algorithms and understandings of thermodynamics, but, as Louise reminds, "How about we talk to them first?"
"That's why both of you are here," says Col. Weber (Forest Whitaker).
The process towards First Contact is arduous. It involves biosuits and radiation suits and full antiviral/-bacterial boosters that could make you sick. It's smart that way, Arrival; compare its scientists to the idiots in Prometheus and appreciate the care taken to present a compelling scenario. The Americans are afraid. The Chinese are terrified. This is an important point, too. A key point in the story of our lives is how we respond when we're frightened, and how others respond when we frighten them. It's something to think about. Weber tells the civilians that every day he has to answer to a room full of people (he doesn't say "frightened" people, but he means that) who want to know if they've been able to answer the question of why the visitors are here and what it is that they want. They're not going to get away with the "To Serve Man" thing again. Louise tells him there are a few months between where they are and being able to get a cogent answer to that complex question. It's complicated, too, by the fact that the aliens don't seem to understand linearity--they're wired around gestalt: the big picture, the destination at the beginning of the journey. Of all the things that it's about, Arrival is mostly about seeing the big picture, the endgame, before the game starts. That's important, too.
Known to this point as a visual stylist with some interesting work that skims across social issues (Incendies, Prisoners, Sicario), Villeneuve may have found the flower of his voice in a film, Enemy, that feels like it was an experiment in existentialism. After Arrival, he's slated to do the Blade Runner sequel, which filled me with dread until I watched Arrival. I feel better about it now. His movies are uneven, to say the least. The best you could say is that they feel incomplete. Good ideas shot soberly with a steady hand and a practiced eye that never wraps around anything substantial. Sometimes that's appropriate. Sometimes it's just frustrating. I wanted another hour of Sicario for something to coalesce. Arrival pairs Villeneuve with screenwriter Eric Heisserer, the latest to take a stab at the "Sandman" adaptation that's worried me for years. I feel less concerned about that now as well. Villeneuve may be like Tim Burton, in the sense that he's a brilliant visual director who desperately needs good collaborators and material, which he most certainly has in a Ted Chiang short story that joins Dan Simmons's "Eyes I Dare Not Meet In Dreams" as pieces of a kind that successfully marry the deeply personal with elements of fabulism.
Louise is learning the alien language as she works through the grief of losing her teenage daughter. When Louise first walks into the classroom where she teaches, her head is down, she doesn't notice the campus gathered around television sets; she wonders why there are only a few students in the theatre but ultimately doesn't care. She prepares to tell the story of Portuguese and why it sounds so different from Spanish. "The story of Portuguese begins in a kingdom called Galicia...," and then she's interrupted. She'll be interrupted throughout the film by flashes of her life with her daughter and her husband, himself long gone, sick of her shit. She'll whisper to Ian at one point, at the worst possible moment, that she thinks she finally knows why her husband left her. "You had a husband?" he asks. It's important to hold onto this moment as you look back on the film. It's a neat trick that Arrival plays: without really being a "twist" movie, it still demands that you go backwards through your memory to comprehend at the end what's happened since the beginning. When understanding cascades in, it's as satisfying a moment as the extended reveal at the end of The Sixth Sense or the scholarship montage in Dark City, with the added benefit of suggesting an entire weight of emotional intelligence that's required to appreciate it.
Arrival's closest analogue is Charlie Kaufman and Michel Gondry's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. At the end of that film, the lovers realize they are destined to quarrel, grow apart, break each others' hearts. "OK," the man says. "OK," the woman concurs. And they cry. The story of their lives is the story of all our lives. All relationships are tragedies. Someone will lose someone else, kids will move away, parents will orphan their children--and that's when everything works out the way it's supposed to. The wonderful thing about us is that we fall in love anyway, have children anyway. We're wired for this. Pain is part of it. We know that. We persevere. It's a strange reverie to indulge in when talking about a film involving a close encounter of the third kind, I know, but there you have it. The fascination of Arrival is that it deals with homegrown fundamentalism, suspicion of China's bellicosity and mindset, the CIA, and the old sci-fi saw of scientific understanding vs. military might, yet at the end what it ultimately has to say is that everyone's lost someone--even the evil Chinese general, Shang (Ma Tzi), who holds something his dead wife said to him in the space in front of his heart. It's this agreement to suffer unimaginable losses and continue on that binds us, each to each, as a species.
There's an argument to be had that some of the dialogue is on the nose, that there's a loss of power for Louise when it's revealed this woman wants a family. Some of it lands as criticism. Some of it reveals social hardwiring and imposed valuation of gender roles. It's critical in any discussion of the story of our lives to understand which is which. I love the Kill Bill films because all this amazing badass really wants is to be a mommy. That's powerful stuff. Arrival is powerful stuff. It presents the same problem for unravelling understanding that its heroes are unravelling at the same time. It teaches you the skills you need to understand it, and they're the same skills Louise is using to understand the alien's non-linear, image-based pictographs. Film is often non-linear, image-based by definition, 24 pictographs a second. We go with the expectation that it will end. Understanding happens in the space between. It's like putting together a jigsaw puzzle where the picture is of you putting together that puzzle. You wonder where the camera is. You wonder how it knew. Arrival is smarter than you think it is. It's stickier than you expect. It's the fulfilment of what great fiction can do, particularly genre fiction. Dostoevsky did this once, so did Stanislaw Lem and Arthur C. Clarke and Philip K. Dick and Ursula K. Le Guin and Maria Doria Russell. Arrival is in good company. It's a thriller whose hero is a linguist, and a little girl who's born with a death sentence but is unstoppable all the same. Just like the rest of us. Arrival is the story of your life, and of others, and when I see it again I'll be thinking of that more because I now know how it ends and it's no longer important. See, even though I know how it ends, I'm going to see it again. The "why?" we do that is the important point. Now someone please adapt Chiang's "Tower of Babylon."