Language, Communication, and Perception: Thoughts on Arrival

 Amy Adams is unstoppable in her portrayal of linguist Louise Banks

Amy Adams is unstoppable in her portrayal of linguist Louise Banks

I know the exact moment when I realized Arrival knew what it was doing and was only going to get better. Early on, Louise Banks (Amy Adams, masterful) gets picked up by a military helicopter at her modern lakeside home. The metallic interior of the aircraft is literally deafening. The sound design is disorienting, and neither we nor Louise can hear anything except for the thunderous rotors. The helicopter's other occupants include Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) and Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner). Everyone else except Louise wears those helicopter headsets. At first, they try to communicate with her. Louise can't understand. Ian gives her a headset, and she can join in the conversation. This scene, though small, represents one of Arrival's many grand themes in a microcosm. It's what all polished movies should do--explore their themes in both large and small ways. After this scene, I knew I was watching a thoughtful and detail-oriented script lead by a talented director.

I'm a huge fan of director Denis Villeneuve. In his missing person thriller Prisoners I reveled in his somber, methodical direction and Roger Deakins' gorgeously oppressive cinematography. Then, Villeneuve floored me a second time with last year's crime film/drug thriller Sicario. When I heard that same director was making a pensive and cerebral sci-fi flick I was beyond excited.

Arrival lived up to my expectations. That's something I don't get to say often regarding movies lately. Amidst the seemingly endless parade of MCU origin stories (Doctor Strange was all right), I was craving something substantial. And let me say: Arrival is substantial. Procedure and practice take center stage for the first half of the film. It's fascinating to watch top linguist Louise Banks work. Amy Adams infuses the character with a steely professionalism that's equal parts compelling and intimidating. Similar to Villeneuve's female protagonist in Sicario, Louise Banks is a dedicated woman living and working in fields dominated by men. She knows she has to fight twice as hard to be treated half as well as her male counterparts.

The film dives into the nuts and bolts of what first contact might actually be like. There are the obligatory scenes of riots, looting, and pundits arguing on TV. After this tenuous election, those scenes hit too close to home. Seeing Louise work her way through a seemingly impossible challenge--translate a complex alien language from scratch--is thrilling. As her team deciphers the heptapods' (the aliens have seven arms/legs) written language, the mystery peels back layer by layer. I felt every breakthrough, every setback, every one of Louise's brave defiances of protocol. This determined and fearless woman caused the men in charge to rip their hair out. I loved every second.

All of this by itself would've been enough. Arrival as a sci-fi procedural with enough thrills and twists two justify its two-hour running time would've been enough. However, Villeneuve sneaks a heart-wrenching twist into the film that elevates Arrival from a sci-fi slow burn to a mind-bending meditation on time, humanity, and our perception of reality. I wouldn't dream of spoiling the twist here. In fact, I'm not going to mention it again. I went into the theater without watching a single trailer.  Arrival is a fantastic film, but my experience was magnified because I went in blind.

Films like Arrival (IE: doesn't include superheroes or Kevin Hart) live and die by word-of-mouth. Their, well, arrivals in theaters aren't pop culture tentpole events. Do yourself and the world of quality filmmaking a favor and go see the movie! Support intelligent art that's challenging and thought-provoking. Do it or you won't be allowed to complain when the seventh Transformers movie comes out in 2020.