Language is Key: A Review of “Arrival”

While the sci-fi genre is typically reserved for high-stakes, big-budget action, director Denis Villeneuve’s latest, Arrival, stands apart from its peers. Villeneuve and writer Eric Heisserer instead opt for a wonderfully human and refreshingly grounded take on the alien invasion tale in what is one of the year’s absolute best films.

The film appropriately begins with an arrival, although not (yet) one of the alien variety, but instead one of childbirth. Over a couple minute’s time, through montage and monologue, we’re effectively introduced to the film’s lead, Louise Banks (Amy Adams), as she cradles her newborn daughter in the initial moments. We quickly move through the child’s life from infant to toddler to teenager, watching the loving relationship between mother and daughter grow before the child’s life is cut painfully short due to a rare illness. Arrival’s opening is intensely emotional, and also remarkable in its ability to give such depth to a character and her situation with so little time.

We learn that Louise is one of the world’s top linguistics experts, and she’s in the middle of a lecture when 12 identical, enormous alien spacecrafts all seemingly appear from out of thin air in 12 locations across the globe. China, Russia, Australia, and the American site that the film focuses on, Montana, are among the 12 locations of which the monolithic ships now stay. Military and governmental forces in each respective country are quick to send in their own forces to learn about the ships.

Louise is asked by US Army Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to lead the Montana team, whose purpose is to decode the language of the aliens. Louise agrees to help, working alongside military personnel as well as theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) in order to understand the alien language and discover their purpose on Earth.

In a truly captivating scene, we’re introduced to the aliens, which the military has begun referring to as Heptapods. But even as we’re presented with the compelling mystery that inherently comes along with the extraterrestrial lifeforms, Arrival becomes less concerned with the aliens and aligns its themes instead with human conflict.

Louise and Ian make minimal progress early on, learning that communicating with the Heptapods through written language works better than verbal communication. It’s nearly impossible to decode their language verbally, but even in written form, the Heptapods use a form of writing that is almost equally as challenging to understand. Unlike the sentence you’re reading right now, Heptapod writing has no beginning or end, rather being a singular, circular symbol that conveys an entire sentence of meaning through its specific shapes.

Louise decides to take her time with the project, knowing that they will need to teach the Heptapods simple English grammar before they can begin asking questions of them. But every time the American team makes any sort of progress in learning the Heptapod language, Chinese forces are ever closer to attacking their own visiting spacecraft. The second act of Arrival hinges on this constant tension. Communication between human groups dwindle just as Louise begins making advancements with the Heptapod language.

Arrival is at all times engaging, rewarding viewers who pay close attention with an intriguing script that involves unsuspecting, totally earned twists and an emotionally resonant ending that comes full circle with the film’s opening. More than that, the cinematography by Bradford Young is absolutely stellar, crafting beautifully rendered scenes throughout. And the looming, ominous soundtrack by Jóhann Jóhannsson is equally impressive, making for one of my favorite film scores of 2016.

And while there are many wonderful aspects at play in the film’s periphery and behind the camera, the main draw on-screen is the magnificent performance from Amy Adams. This is her film as much as it is Denis Villeneuve’s. The rest of the acting on display here is of similar quality, but it’s Adams’ performance that holds the film together.

Arrival had a dazzling effect on me from its first moments until its closing credits. Denis Villeneuve offers a unique take on the alien invasion genre that is definitely worth seeing, and one that you’ll likely be talking about for the rest of the year.

— Michael Lane, Blog Editor

3 thoughts on “Language is Key: A Review of “Arrival”

  1. Sam Gennett November 17, 2016 / 8:20 pm

    Awesome review, Michael! What an amazing film- you articulated it so well! My favorite aspect of the film (though there were a million things I loved about it) is the score.

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