In 1977, two landmark sci-fi films were released within six months of each other. The first, Star Wars, was a space epic inspired by Flash Gordon and Akira Kurosawa, spawning a billion-dollar franchise. The second was Close Encounters of the Third Kind, technically a “smaller” film despite its larger budget, but one that arguably exhibits a bigger human imagination. A secular film with a religious heart, Close Encounters understood that science fiction could be used as a direct conduit for empathy. It believed in its bones that the unknown doesn’t have to inherently inspire fear, but instead understanding and compassion. By the end of the film, we learn that the aliens that land in Devils Tower, Wyoming don’t want to hurt us. They just want to make music. They just want to say, “Hello.”
Denis Villeneuve’s latest film Arrival, written by Eric Heisserer and based on Ted Chiang’s short story “Story of Your Life,” admirably taps into that same humanity, albeit with less Spielbergian sentimentality. When multiple extraterrestrial spacecrafts land across the globe, U.S. Army Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) tasks linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and mathematician Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to investigate one of the sites in Montana. Though they initially have different approaches to the problem (Ms. Language vs. Mr. Numbers), they quickly join forces to learn the aliens’ language to understand why they’re here. All the while, the world’s governments fall back on panic and distress and the globe starts to turn on each other.
The central irony of the film—the “foreign invaders” are more peaceful than the humans, who largely use their arrival to exercise violence—remains potent throughout if only because Villeneuve and Heisserer are clearly committed to conveying the utter reality of Arrival’s premise. Every character reacts realistically to the situation at hand, from clear-headed pragmatism to impulsive anxiety. The actual mechanics of Banks and Donnelly’s approach to interspecies communication remains grounded and compelling. Arrival embraces highfalutin concepts like linguistic relativity or determinism, knowing that intelligence and accessibility aren’t mutually exclusive even at the mainstream, big-budget level. It poses evergreen questions to its audience about the foundations of society and human behavior without providing simplistic answers or eye-rolling bromides. Arrival takes its cues from the high-minded sci-fi of the past to better understand our current global moment, particularly our desperate need to bridge divides between different cultures.
Of course, the film isn’t a dispassionate metaphor about The Way Things Are. It employs the visual and narrative language of procedurals and puzzle-box mysteries, keeping key details close to the chest while enveloping the audience in the details of the mission and a parallel narrative involving Louise’s personal life. Without giving crucial details away, Villeneuve and Heisserer paint an unsparing portrait of motherhood as an inherent gift but also a necessary sacrifice. While Spielberg depicts family in Close Encounters as ultimately expendable in relation to the otherworldly, Villeneuve treats the otherworldly as a clarifying agent that helps strengthen the bonds of family. There’s confidence in Arrival’s execution that’s noteworthy, especially in the way it reframes established assumptions as the film develops, and its ability to communicate its capital-T Themes without resorting to schlocky shortcuts. It’s a film that has much to say about extending love to others despite the potential for future pain, and it takes the time not just to treat those ideas seriously but also to cultivate them fully and appropriately.
Ironically, Arrival’s cool exterior is its biggest liability. At times, there’s almost a catatonic tone to the material that belies its beating, bleeding heart, even though it’s obviously a tactic to juice its climactic moments with unforeseen catharsis. Villeneuve outsources much of the immediate emotionality to Jóhann Jóhannsson’s classical-cum-avant-garde score and Max Richter’s moving composition “On The Nature of Daylight,” but sometimes the film feels too calculated, such as Louise and Ian’s first introduction and especially a late development involving the Chinese general, played by Tzi Ma. That might seem like an odd complaint given that it’s at least in spitting distance of hard sci-fi, but Arrival indulges in enough Close Encounters-esque sentiment in its last act that it often feels too restrained in the build-up.
Nevertheless, the talent on display in Arrival is staggering, and not just in Adams’ fierce performance pitched somewhere between passion and grief, but also the formal talents as well. Bradford Young’s metallic photography captures the surreal beauty of the Heptapods themselves; Patrice Vermette’s production design work makes the inside of a spacecraft look like a walk-in sensory deprivation tank; Martine Bertrand’s alien language design resembles Henna-like calligraphy if drawn by Terrence Malick. All of this contributes to Arrival’s grace, which stands as its most enduring quality, especially in these trying times. Though Arrival’s impact wouldn’t be lessened if it were released earlier in the year, that it arrives in theaters when the United States appears on the brink of a seismic shift in national values feels undeniably appropriate. Arrival preaches tolerance over fear, wisdom over folly, and patience over rashness, all of which are values that feel fitting in the face of national division and potential demagoguery. It puts forth that maybe the person in the distance who frightens you the most isn’t an enemy, but a potential friend who just wants to make music, or just wants to say, “Hello.” What could be a better message at a time like this?