Villeneuve has a great eye — his images are at once elegant and forbidding — and he has honed the ability to immerse you in unreal, deeply unsettling worlds. He's at his best with mood pieces, when he's not trying to navigate through conventional story beats and resolutions. Which might be why Arrival, about the mysterious appearance of 12 floating extraterrestrial vessels in different corners of the world, is the best film the director has made so far: Its atmosphere is its story.
This is material that needs a director with patience, as its impact rests on texture and tone. Villeneuve opens with a short, sharp blast of pain that seems somewhat unrelated to the rest of the film (though, yes, it’ll all come together by the end). We see, in quick flashes, Louise Banks (Amy Adams) goofing around with her young daughter, both of them happy and healthy. “I used to think this was the beginning of your story,” Louise says in voiceover.
More snippets follow, growing ever more relentless: In one cut, we go from the young girl telling mother she loves her to her as a young teen now telling mom she hates her. Then we see mom learn that the girl is very sick. Finally, we witness Louise standing over her daughter in a hospital room, watching as the girl dies. We never catch sight of a father, or really anyone else, adding to the sense of dead-end desolation. “Now I’m not sure I believe in beginnings and endings,” Louise says, closing out this opening reverie by finishing that first thought about the beginning of her daughter’s story from a few minutes back. And then the aliens arrive.
Based on Ted Chiang’s acclaimed 1998 novella Story of Your Life, Arrival finds Louise, a linguist, and Ian (Jeremy Renner), a scientist, recruited by the U.S. military to communicate with the aliens, called “heptapods” thanks to their seven long tentacles. Hearing a recording of their inchoate wailing — part whale noise, part metal machine music — Louise realizes that she must actually be in their presence to understand them. Sure enough, when she does “meet” the heptapods, who emerge, dreamlike, from a milky fog contained behind a glass wall, she realizes that their real language is not spoken but written, consisting of circular swipes in which every little wave and eddy and brush stroke conveys meaning. To find out why the creatures are here, and whether they come in peace, Louise and Ian try to master this nonlinear language, in which communications have no clear beginning or end.
If this all sounds very tone-poem-y to you — dreamlike alien encounters, forlorn scientists, elliptical puzzles of language itself — that’s because it is. But it also speaks to why Villeneuve is such a good fit for the material: He can ground the metaphysical and the metaphorical without undermining the mood he’s created. He’s not given to airy, indulgent wallows in style; you always sense that things are building up to some kind of emotional payoff. I have to respect a wide release with the gall to spend so much of its running time in a nondescript room, watching a linguist translate cryptic alien messages. And Adams, with her melancholy curiosity, does a fine job with this beautifully suffering character.
Time has always been a great theme of science fiction, but increasingly the movies have emphasized grief as well, as evidenced by Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar and Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (which isn’t sci-fi, but has roots in the genre — it dares to pick up the gauntlet 2001: A Space Odyssey threw down decades before). In these films, our space-age yearnings do battle with very human pain; we survive, or we zoom out into space, in order to transcend our grief. Grief has to be transcended in Arrival as well, but in a decidedly different way.
I don’t want to give too much away, but early on, someone mentions the “Sapir-Whorf hypothesis” — the notion that the language you speak determines the way you think. Anyone who is fully bilingual can tell you that there is great truth to the idea that the structure of a given language can effectively rewire your brain. When people ask me if switching from English to Turkish is like switching gears in a car, I tell them that it’s like stopping the car, getting out of it, stepping into a truck and driving off in a completely different direction. I essentially become a different person.
So language creates its own reality. Arrival takes that concept quite a bit further — first as style, then as … well, something more. The film flies through months of Louise and Ian struggling over the heptapods’ nonlinear language, but it does so in such an unassuming manner that you could swear it’s the next day. These temporal shifts are not mere grace notes or directorial frills. What appear to be longueurs actually turn out to be crucial to the film’s eventual meaning: “Now, I’m not sure I believe in endings and beginnings.” Subtly, but surely, Villeneuve is toying with our internal rhythms as viewers.
Perhaps he’s too successful at it. There is a somewhat more conventional narrative thread here, and it purports to have some urgency: The more humanity learns about the aliens, the more humanity fears them, and the fact that there are 12 different countries working with 12 different sets of aliens, we understand, is threatening an already tenuous global peace. Whenever these more formulaic story elements intrude — on-the-nose bits of dialogue, loaded character interactions — they threaten the spell that Villeneuve has cast. Still, for most of its running time, Arrival is entrancing, intimate and moving — a sci-fi movie that looks not up at the stars but rather deep within.