Like last year’s Room, the alien-invasion (sort of) movie Arrival is an emotional gut-punch, a fist swinging right into the most vulnerable spot in the parental solar plexus. Unlike Room, whose wallop was obvious from its mother-and-child-imprisoned premise, Arrival hits you in a way that is hard to explain. Indeed, I can’t explain much of anything about what makes it, maybe, a great movie, because almost all of its considerable power lies in the shock of revelation.
I can tell you about the aliens, at least. They arrive in a dozen ships, huge gray lozenges hanging perpendicular to land and sea in twelve locations around the world — China and Montana, Sierra Leone and Sudan — with no clear rhyme or reason to their placement. A hatch opens and we are invited inside, into a large space with gravity and atmosphere set to our specifications, facing a huge glassy barrier behind which the aliens appear to us, fog-shrouded and mysterious. They look part elephant, part octopus, with dark gray skin and seven appendages — “heptapods,” we label them — and a body that vanishes upward into the mist. And they clearly mean to speak to us, in strange vibratory voices. We just have no idea what they’re saying.
Enter Amy Adams as Louise Banks, a distinguished linguist who’s plucked from her academic posting and lovely but lonely-seeming Pacific-facing home to join the soldiers and scientists encamped around the spaceship in Montana, where she’s suited up and sent inside to see if she can decode the new arrivals’ speech. She’s joined by a physicist partner, played by Jeremy Renner, supervised by the military and the CIA (represented, respectively, by Forest Whitaker and Michael Stuhlbarg), and pressured by the perils of global politics. Via various newscasts, we see that other countries have made progress communicating with the aliens, and that what they’ve uncovered makes them fear that the visitors bring not peace but a sword.
For Banks, progress comes through giving up on the oral realm and turning to written language, using her whiteboard to link basic English words — starting with “human” and her name — to embodied realities and persuading her alien interlocutors to do the same. They write in smoke or vapor, producing circular signs whose meanings are embedded in densely packed curlicues. As she studies them, her psychology seems to be reshaped — there is talk of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, of the way that language forms our modes of thought — and different times in her life cycle seem to blur: What seem like memories, fragments of her life with a daughter who died young, assert themselves within her consciousness, shaking the preeminence of the present.
This is a movie in which what happens to Adams’s character is far more interesting than what happens to the world. The story does a decent enough job of integrating the personal and the political in the end, but the aliens are a means to a spiritual and emotional climax, not an end unto themselves. I fear that this makes it sound a little bit like Contact and the more recent Interstellar, movies that tried unsuccessfully to spiritualize and sanctify first contact. In this case, all that I can say is that the spiritualization is successful precisely because it isn’t about the aliens themselves, but rather the strange gift or curse (you’ll decide) that they bestow.
The director, the Quebec-born Denis Villeneuve, has made two memorable but flawed English-language movies. The first, Prisoners, about a small-town kidnapping, felt overstuffed; the second, Sicario, about feds working the U.S.–Mexico border, was all mood with a plot that didn’t bear analysis. Here he finds the balance, with a script — adapted from a cerebral, cunning, but less emotionally wrecking short story — that’s finally worthy of his style. The movie’s palette is cold; its score is somber, throbbing; the pace is deliberate, but never slow. Some of the political plotting is crudely done, but not egregiously so. Renner is forgettable, with too little romantic charisma for the part, but that’s okay: This is Adams’s movie, and her watchful, contained, slowly opening performance builds her case for acknowledgment as one of this generation’s finest actresses.
Arrival isn’t a twist-ending movie; its surprise’s unfolding is more gradual. But as ever with films that gut-punch you the first time through, there’s a question of whether to trust that reaction, whether the emotional triggers overwhelm aesthetic judgment. In this case, I saw it twice, and I can report that it didn’t make me sob the second time around. But I still admired it, so I still commend it: See it once, at least.