#21 — Arrival (Denis Villeneuve, 2016)
It has been one of the consistent animating questions in science fiction: What will humanity do when visitors from another planet arrive? The premise is an easy entryway to studies of Cold War dread, the long-gone fervor for grasping at the unknown, the building of unconventional family, and the exploitable cultural aversion to the any population that can be defined by the ruling class as other. And then there are the many films — and far more rarely books and other media — that use the coming of extraterrestrials are little more than a prompt to blow up stuff. The concept is used to the point of trope-dom for a reason, and it takes a special film make with remarkable craft to traffic in many of the well-worn, previously plundered possibilities and yet enliven the soul with the shock of true invention coupled with deep human insight. Arrival reverberates with that miraculous convergence of the highly fantastic and solidly grounded, profoundly recognizable truth.
To imbue humanity, it helps that Arrival filmmaker Denis Villeneuve has Amy Adams on board. Adams plays Louise Banks, a linguist who is recruited by the U.S. military when several alien spacecraft cross through Earth’s ozone to dock hovering above the ground at several spots across the globe. Befitting the likely science of such an occurrence — and bravely eschewing the humanoid beings equipped with translator technology that often crop in such stories — the creatures from outer space are inscrutable in every way, and the hope is that Louise’s deep study of the foundational components of language will lead to a means for communication with the visitors. Adams plays the character with a believable urgency for determining the solution to a nearly impossible problem, but she is more than a driven genius. Louise carries her whole life with her, the way we all do without be wholly cognizant of it, and Adams discernibly shows the full being of the character. When the film reaches its endgame of narrative demolition, challenging the fundamentals of perception and passing time, it’s clear Adams has been sketching in that particular portrait the entire time, without losing grasp of the need to play a real person rather than a cog in the machinery of movie storytelling.
The elegance of Eric Heisserer’s screenplay, adapted from a Ted Chiang novella, is met, matched, and ultimately transcended by Villeneuve’s direction. Drawing on the work of artful collaborators — cinematographer Bradford Young, editor Joe Walker, and composer Jóhann Jóhannsson prime among them — Villeneuve crafts a film that relies on elusive sensations and ethereal interplay to heighten its emotional and intellectual impact. But he avoids letting Arrival become indulgent, because he, like his lead, keeps the proceedings tethered to the hard and heartening chunks of existence that accrue into meaning and purpose. Experiences matters not because of some inherent worthiness, but because people, individually and collectively, make them matter. The past and future are built. All it takes is a will to find a way.