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Present Tense

The world rushes to decipher an alien language in Denis Villeneuve’s smart sci-fi film Arrival
Amy Adams in Arrival
Amy Adams in Arrival

If you’re looking for a distraction from the state of the world, Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival both is and isn’t the movie you’re looking for. The film’s previews suggest an actiony alien invasion, and while there are aliens, they’re hardly the angry insects that infest so many science fiction films. Instead, they look like hands with too many fingers, suspended, tips down. They sound like whalesong mixed with the groans of a building in a storm — a language Louise Banks (Amy Adams) can hardly hope to speak.

But their written language is something else entirely, and somewhere in its coffee-stain rings lies the answer to the one pressing question the military wants to ask: What is your purpose on Earth?

Well, what is your purpose on Earth, sir? What is anyone’s, and how do we teach a person to understand that question in the first place? Taut and dark, with a dramatically muted palette, Arrival doesn’t want you to focus on the science, or the military, or even the aliens, whose spaceship is a blank slate of textured walls and one glowing transparent panel. These are trappings for a quiet conversation about how people can be nearly as different, among ourselves, as humanity and aliens — and how language is part of that difference. 

In dim military tents, monitors show faces from the other 11 landing sites around the world — people working in their own languages to communicate with the new arrivals, even as they fail to communicate with each other. When the screens start going dark, with countries choosing to keep their breakthroughs to themselves, it’s not a subtle message. 

For all its visual grace, Arrival is often unsubtle, whether in the lingering shots of a minor villain or in the direct emotional appeal of its opening sequence. As the story unravels its knotty puzzles, it occasionally stumbles over a second thread of the narrative that reminds us that communication is vital on a personal as well as a global — or galactic — level. To be more specific would spoil some of Arrival’s gentle twists and turns, which unlock yet more questions about who we are and how we understand the world.

Adams largely carries this movie, which has been carefully cast with people who look more like normal people and less like movie stars. She’s convincingly wide-eyed and brilliant, and makes Louise ruthless and fearless in ways we don’t often see on screen. While a few pieces of the plot don’t quite stand up to hard scrutiny, Adams’ performance absolutely does. Even when the personal aspects of the story veer toward sappiness, Adams (and Jeremy Renner, to a lesser degree) soldiers on, blending knowledge and heartbreak into an excellent whole.

When it’s focused on language and the complexities of communication, Arrival is one of the best of the recent crop of thoughtful science fiction films, taking the age-old alien-invasion premise in a new direction. We work with what we’ve learned from the past — but it would be a mistake not to take the future into equal consideration. (Regal Valley River, Cinemark 17)