By Conner Reed
BU News Service
Imagine this as an elevator pitch: “Close Encounters,” but it’s about linguistics, and the climax comes when Amy Adams spontaneously bursts into fits of Mandarin. Too weird? What if the aliens were named Abbot and Costello?
You would probably leave the elevator and go watch “Enchanted” as a palette cleanser. This would be the wrong move. For your own good, turn around and march back in there—there’s also a part where Adams shoots magic ink out of her hands.
“Arrival,” Denis Villeneuve’s alien-focused follow-up to 2015’s “Sicario,” is one of the most unlikely successes in recent memory. It is adapted from Ted Chang’s famously twisty 1998 story “Story of Your Life,” features some of the most worn-out subject matter in sci-fi and dedicates a formidable portion of its runtime to a linguistics professor talking about linguistics. It also happens to be heart-warming, visually ravishing and one of the most overwhelming film experiences of the year. That it comes in the wake of national turmoil is an added bonus.
The film wastes little time getting started. After a brief, wrenching prologue, we see Adams’ Dr. Louise Banks show up to a linguistics lecture only to find three total students staring back at her. Cable news is alight. Cell phones are on the fritz. Twelve strange alien vessels have touched down, seemingly at random, across the globe and no one knows where they came from. Cue international panic. Banks, we quickly learn, is The Most Distinguished Person In Her Field, and so a military colonel (Forest Whitaker) comes knocking at her office door to enlist her in decoding the aliens’ unusual speech.
One of the best things about “Arrival” will also be the source of its harshest criticism: Villeneuve keeps the scope narrow and lets the story breathe. Far too many filmmakers get lost in the potential grandeurs of the invasion narrative (the ’08 remake of “The Day the Earth Stood Still” comes to mind), but Villeneuve trains “Arrival” squarely on the experiences of its lead character. We watch the film’s opening scenes with the assumption that we’ll soon check in with the entire world. We’re braced to see crowds riot in Ecuador, meet an epidemiologist in Eastern Europe and/or follow a ragtag team of underdogs as they face this massive threat.
This never comes. Amy Adams is not Will Smith, and if the film takes place on a national holiday, we never hear anything about it.
Yes, the cast of characters expands a bit. We receive a moment or two of faux-news coverage. But for the most part, we experience the invasion through the prism of Dr. Banks, and this allows the film’s larger assertions, when they come, to hit harder. Adams, of course, is fiercely up to the challenge. She imbues Banks with equal parts steeliness and fragility: a woman reluctant to accept her position of power but fiercely defensive of its importance. She, like the film, is quiet, resourceful, and absolutely riveting, grounding “Arrival” even as it makes some shifts in its second half.
And boy, does it shift. After an initial hour that indulges in all the alien fetishism a kid could ask for, “Arrival” takes a turn for the heady. The narrative begins fracturing and pulling together several timelines. Its concerns become far less concrete. As Banks learns more and more of the aliens’ bizarre language, the film starts to reveal a lofty thematic hand—then reverses on itself, revealing an even loftier hand. This could sink a less assured film. Indeed, some developments border on silly (see paragraphs one and two), but it becomes clear in the final reel that “Arrival” knows exactly what it is doing.
Saying much more would spoil what is truly one of the most graceful, resonant, and satisfying endings of any year. Arrival” is bold, and not in the ways we often expect science-fiction to be. It argues for the value of language and the divinity of ordinary life in ways that make it read more like a grounded Vonnegut novel than an effects-driven franchise builder. In the face of an increasingly fractured world, it is a call to empathy that lodges itself into our brains, urging us to be better—and like the extraterrestrials at its center, it refuses to let us go.