How do you make an epic about saving the entire world feel as intimate as a independent film? How do you tell a story with such high stakes while still managing to make the audience feel emotionally connected to the individual people involved? With Arrival, director Denis Villeneuve and his collaborators make this incredible task look easy — and utterly gorgeous to boot. Adapted by screenwriter Eric Heisserer from Ted Chiang’s short story “Story of Your Life,” Arrival is yet another in a long line of alien invasion movies, but it’s also so much more than that. It’s the story of a single extraordinary woman who steps up to save the human race, armed with nothing more than her ability to communicate. It’s a story of hope — and it’s one that audiences need to hear right now.
That said woman is played by Amy Adams, who makes her all the more compelling. Adams is not only one of the most consistent actresses working today — turning out brilliant performances in such diverse films as Junebug, Enchanted, The Master, and Big Eyes, just to name a few — she’s also one of the most subtle. Her performances never rely on flashy gimmicks or method madness; she can easily disappear inside a character without the aid of wigs and weight gain. Her presence as Lois Lane in the Man of Steel movies instantly classes up proceedings — at least, as much as is possible when Zack Snyder is involved. In Arrival, Adams portrays a very different kind of superhero than the ones she hobnobs with in the dour DC universe, and her quietly intense performance as linguistics professor Dr. Louise Banks is one that stands out even among her impressive body of work.
Louise is living a lonely life in a big house, teaching at an anonymous university during the day and gulping glasses of red wine at night, when she’s enlisted by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to do what seems to be the impossible. Twelve black obelisks have appeared out of nowhere and are floating above a diverse array of locations across the globe. Teaming up with brash astrophysicist Ian (Jeremy Renner), Louise is sent to the obelisk in Montana to find a way to communicate with the extraterrestrials inside. She uses written words on flashcards to get the aliens — dubbed “heptopods” for their seven squid-like legs — to share their own written method of communication, a series of intricate rings reminiscent of the stains produced by coffee mugs. Louise’s painstaking work seems slow to the military men around her, whose trigger fingers are growing itchy from watching too many giddily paranoid news broadcasts (an example of the power of communication used for ill if there ever was one), but gradually she produces results.
One doesn’t think of writing words on flashcards as the epitome of action-packed, but in Arrival these moments are surprisingly engaging. A scene in which Louise explains to an impatient Colonel Weber the numerous steps that need to be taken before asking the aliens what brought them to Earth — pointing out that one has to teach the aliens what a question even is before one can ask them one, then breaking down the various grammatical elements of the question on a whiteboard — is a phenomenal glimpse inside the weird world of linguistics, a world that I admit was almost entirely foreign to me going into the movie. So impressive is Louise’s mastery of language that it feels like a superpower — an unlikely one, to be sure, but one that proves highly effective.
I don’t want to reveal more of the plot of the film for fear of ruining it for others; suffice to say that in Arrival, humans are just as much of a threat to the future of Earth as their alien visitors, if not more so. Throughout it all, Louise remains the quietly heroic heart of the movie, determined to do whatever it takes to maintain the heptopods’ tenuous new relationship with humanity. One doesn’t necessarily root for the human race in Arrival; one roots for our heroine, and it just so happens that the fate of the human race is tied to her success. The story edges its way along a tightrope of tension and never grows boring despite the startling lack of such science-fiction standbys as spaceship shoot-outs and special effects-induced explosions (okay, there’s one explosion). It handles sophisticated topics in a way that feels accessible to the average moviegoer, though one shouldn’t be shocked that a film focused on communication expresses itself so elegantly; despite the potential for pretentiousness, one never feels talked down to by Arrival.
The success of Arrival is not entirely due to Amy Adams’ performance as Louise, though it is a substantial part of it. Jóhann Jóhannsson’s appropriately otherworldly score sets the mood throughout the film, and is an ideal match for Bradford Young’s ethereal cinematography. Young (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Selma) is a master of using only available, natural light to create beautiful images, and Arrival is no exception. This combination of sound and image results in perfectly crafted moments that are as epic as anything in Kubrick’s classic 2001: A Space Odyssey — the highest praise I can give any film in this genre. The first reveal of the heptopods will make your heart leap into your throat, and stands out in my mind as one of the most memorable cinematic moments of the year.
Arrival has entered theaters as the people of the United States are reeling from the result of our most recent presidential election, and it’s likely we’ll all continue to reel for quite some time. And while cinematic escapism is only a temporary solution to the anxiety that plagues so many of us, Arrival is that rare film that provides a much-needed escape from our real world while also containing a timely message for it. In a world increasingly on edge, with conflict always hovering on the horizon, it would do us all some good to be reminded of the power of communication to maintain peace. And for little girls around the world who long to see people who look like them saving the world, Arrival is a wonderful (and unfortunately necessary) reminder that yes, women can be heroes too.
Lee Jutton has directed short films starring a killer toaster, a killer Christmas tree, and a not-killer leopard. She previously reviewed new DVD and theatrical releases as a staff writer for Just Press Play and currently reviews television shows as a staff writer for TV Fanatic. You can follow her on Medium for more film reviews and on Twitter for an excessive amount of opinions on German soccer.