Quebecois auteur Denis Villeneuve’s latest film, Arrival, is a sci-fi thriller centred on Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguist who is tasked with communicating with and figuring out the intentions of mysterious extra-terrestrials who have suddenly landed their featureless, black spaceships on Earth.
The true focus of Arrival is not so much about the aliens and their technology but about Louise’s journey and transformation, which linked intrinsically to her loneliness and to the death of her young daughter. Themes of grief, time, love, and memory are twisted into an evocative tale told through a non-linear, Tree of Life-style presentation of visuals and voiceovers. Like few sci-fi films before it, Arrival’s non-linear challenges emphasize emotional realizations over cerebral ones, making it more moving than astounding.
Not to say that the film is not visually breathtaking as well: there is a minimalist, abstract beauty to the spaceships, aliens, and their calligraphic language (which reminds me a little of the circular Gallifreyan language in Doctor Who). Simple, black, textured structures and spaces filled with white fog are the only markers of the otherworldly environment of the aliens who themselves resemble squids, skeletons, and elephants all at once.
And of course, the great puzzle in Arrival of deciphering the alien language appeals greatly to the linguistics lover in me. (I once briefly considered switching my studies over to linguistics after having my mind blown in university by French thinkers such as Foucault and Derrida who pointed out the remarkable relationship that language has to power, knowledge, and understanding. As Barthes said, “Language is never innocent”.) Multilingual viewers and language lovers are sure to appreciate what the film does by having the heroine’s special skill be linguistics and showing the unique challenges presented when communicating with speakers of other languages.
The plot and resolution is a little cliché, however. As the spaceships have appeared at twelve random locations all across the world, a message of global unification is pushed forward as different countries work on communicating with their particular aliens and refusing to share critical intel with other nations. The aliens’ ultimate goal is to encourage the humans to work together, gifting us with their language, which unlocks a secret power that I will not reveal here. When Louise realizes this, she must circumvent all the men and rules around her in order to stop China and Russia (insert eye-roll here) from possibly starting a war.
A review of Arrival would not be complete without a quick comparison to Villeneuve’s previous film, Sicario. Both films starred a female protagonist and were brilliantly scored by Jóhann Jóhannsson (who will be working with Villeneuve again on Blade Runner 2049). The director shows a penchant for helicopter shots, unexpectedly gorgeous visuals, and restrained storytelling, proving that he is still at the top of his game.
Rating: 4 out of 5 orange hazmat suits