At the beginning of Arrival, students are diverted from their everyday activities, staring in disbelief at an unpredictable and potentially catastrophic event happening on television. The tension in the rest of the film is predicated on the fear that reckless world leaders will take irrevocable violent action when those committed to peaceful understanding and cooperation are not acting fast enough for their liking. While films take years to produce and by their very nature cannot react in real time to our world, watching this the day after Donald Trump was elected certainly brought to the fore the permanent anxieties the film addressed. We’ll always have power structures that are reflexively defensive, but Arrival reminds us many in prominent positions are committed to peace.
Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is a renowned linguistics professor whose prior translation work for U.S. Army Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) leads her to be his first call when alien spacecraft arrive on Earth. Lack of a common language prevents us from even understanding their purpose. They have stationed themselves at twelve seemingly-random points across the planet, and teams of scientists are working together to try to decipher their language or teach them one of ours. Foremost in Louise’s team is physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) from the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, whose position inside the government allows him and Louise the flexibility she needs to work through the language hurdles bit by bit.
This process is outlined near the beginning, how difficult it is to simply get to the fundamental question “what is your purpose here?”. This is somewhat predictably abandoned into a montage of learning, as Louise and Ian work with the aliens towards at least rudimentary communication, in the process opening up a great deal more. Louise keeps having dreams of her late daughter, dreams that seem to intrude into the present. Meanwhile, Weber keeps building pressure on her to find an immediate solution as calls from inside and outside the government to take violent action rise. A “show of force” feels increasingly necessary, if only to relieve the uncertainty. Adams has a natural recourse for this nervous resilience, the anxiety that accompanies knowing you’re right but remaining unsure if the momentary action will prove successful. One of her first scenes ends with her letting out a tremendous sigh after making a move that could be viewed as overstepping, and the tension she had been holding throughout the scene lets us know she needed it. We even needed it a little.
The negotiation between diplomacy and force feels at the fore of our public lives this week, but the tension in Arrival – based on a 1998 short story by Ted Chiang and adapted over the course of many years by screenwriter Eric Heisserer – is eternally relevant. We’re all terrified of the unknown, of what the future holds, of our leaders acting too rashly with the tremendous power they’re given. Director Denis Villeneuve is a modern master of uncertainty, never allowing the release of tension that comes with a jump scare or sudden loud noise. Through his last three films – Sicario, Enemy, and Prisoners – he recognized the greater terror is being left perched in anticipation. Arrival brings in the possibility of grace, the only true, human release. It emphasizes that the only resolution is understanding. Villeneuve, collaborating beautifully with cinematography Bradford Young (A Most Violent Year, Selma) for the first time, uses the frame to continually put Adams or Rennar and the aliens in the same frame as the aliens, isolating others outside of it. These two are the ones connecting to them; all others are checking their backs.
Heisserer allows several familiar tropes from this sort of thing to come crawling in (that anonymous soldier who keeps looking uneasy isn’t calling home for nothing!), and Villeneuve retains his somewhat blunt thematic hand. I’m stealing this from somebody, “but who’s the real ______?” can be applied to his previous titles to rather tidily sum up their thematic concerns. Arrival may not fit the scheme so precisely, but he seems to view the finale through a similarly smooth lens, proud of the lengths to which the narrative goes and assuaging us of the moral value of an enormously complex choice Louise has to make. Still, that choice is there, and it lingers. So too does the cathartic reassertion that cooperation will always triumph.