When the aliens touch down in Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival”, they don’t quite touch down all the way, which is to say their semi-oblong slab-of-granite looking spaceships are hovering just off the ground at various places around Earth, captured most prominently in a breathtaking shot framing one of these spaceships in a picturesque Montana valley before circling around to reveal a significant military encampment, like you can’t have one without the other. Indeed, ten million alien invasion movies have conditioned us to expect the worse and when we finally see our visitors from another world up close, several feet high and tentacled, like octopi transplanted to land, heptapods as they are labeled, a moniker hueing a little too closely to the tripods of “War of the Worlds” fame, we might jump to that conclusion. Aside, however, from an itty bitty, undercooked subplot involving a few soldiers with a few bad thoughts bubbling and a few foreign powers who decide to fear the worst, “Arrival” is less concerned with initiating attack than stopping to listen.
This is where Louise Banks (Amy Adams) comes in. Rather than some sort of space jockey enlisted to combat these E.T.’s, she is a professor of linguistics summoned to try and make sense of exactly what these E.T.’s want. This is the second consecutive film where Villeneuve’s main character has been a female without much fuss or muss; she just is. Louise is simply the best person for the job, emblemized in her more or less calling the bluff of Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) when he shows up looking for her help while declaring an ultimatum. We’ve come a long way, even since “Contact” (1997), which bears resemblance to “Arrival” in terms of plot but featured its principal female (Jodie Foster) having to deal with the political machinations of a smug male (Tom Skerritt). The other male in “Arrival”, a theoretical physicist named Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), quickly falls in line as a second in command. Of course, he’s a white male, which means America’s first contact with the aliens is chiefly handled by a couple Caucasians, which suggests there is still some work to do.
Still, Louise is a woman, our chief American ambassador, and one suffering through what seem to be flashbacks to a previous life with a young daughter lost. Yet despite such melancholy, and even in the face of having to enter an otherworldly craft while wearing an orange hazmat suit and try to make sense of aliens conversing via something like squid ink manifested as something like smoke signals, she is never fearful or overwhelmed. This is a testament to the performance of Adams, who exudes not just a winning pragmatism but a joyful humanitarianism (her line reading of “Joe Alien” is casually revealing). Her character is a professor and a peacemaker, and she takes the latter as seriously as the former, particularly as the stakes heighten when other nations begin acting scurrilous, issuing threats to the extra-terrestrials and engendering a countdown. Yet even as this happens, Villeneuve keeps his focus firmly on Louise and her quest to unravel the extra-terrestrial’s intentions, rendering a global event as an intimate one instead.
This intimacy is most strikingly conveyed in a few shots where Louise sits by herself, or in the company of Ian, a fair distance from the alien craft, gazing up at it. And Villeneuve frames these moments so that the spaceship is looming just over Louise’s shoulder, sometimes out of focus. Here, we are not seeing the ship through some militarized computer mainframe or through the screen of a television. Here, the din of innumerable news cable anchors, confused citizens, blowhard conspiracy theorists, and concerned military personnel that we hear throughout “Arrival” are long gone. Here, we are seeing a global event through the eyes of one woman, a woman open to the mysteries of the universe rather than closed to them. Here, all you feel is wonder, not terror. It feels pretty good.
So does most of the movie. Occasionally, Villeneuve gets off point, pausing to overly explicate information, like a montage in the middle accompanied by a Renner voiceover that gives us the nuts and bolts of everything that has happened, like a What Happened Last Week at the beginning of a two part television episode. It’s the one moment when the movie refuses to place trust in its audience and it tellingly blunts the impact.
The rest of “Arrival” is all about trust. Indeed, Villeneuve is essentially asking for our trust, asking for viewers not to play the guess ahead game and see if they can figure out the end while the narrative is still in progress, and simply engage with the present. And our engagement with the present, in a wonderful twist that will not be revealed, not exactly, is precisely what holds the key to the mystery for Louise establishing communication, and for Louise to settle the emergent mysteries in her own life. It’s a beautiful thing, the way that “Arrival’s” own answers amalgamate with our viewing experience. And if, like Louise, you are willing to simply listen, oh the things you’ll hear.