The truth is out there
A magical stop on the time-space continuum
In a bare-bones synopsis, Arrival might sound a little sappy, or maybe even a bit presumptuous. So I’ll begin at the end, in a sense, and say that Denis Villeneuve’s smartly beguiling film brews special magic out of a combination, both low-key and inspired, of deft performances, deceptively casual atmospherics, a cool and expansive musical score (by Jóhann Jóhannsson), and an astutely modulated approach to the dynamics of genre (sci-fi, in this case).
And, having put that on the table, I’ll give you this version of a bare-bones synopsis: In Arrival, the government calls a linguist (Amy Adams) into service as an interpreter, in hopes that she can decipher the messages emerging from the outer-space creatures that have just landed their massive spacecraft in Montana and nearly a dozen other locations around the world. Louise Banks (Adams) and a physicist named Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) plunge into their task with far more zeal and passion than their military minders (Forest Whitaker and Michael Stuhlbarg) have bargained for.
Crises, global and otherwise, ensue. Relationships, human and otherwise, begin to develop, and even to blossom in unusual ways. Certain crises are, somewhat mysteriously, resolved, or at least addressed. A few are resolved even though not really addressed.
The imponderables and uncertainties mentioned above are part of what works best in Arrival. Louise’s linguistics and Ian’s physics are more a part of the film’s aura of otherworldly dimensions than of its central structures. And the film’s venture into those other dimensions eventually spirals toward an exploration of “inner,” rather than outer, space.
Louise’s journey into, or at least toward, the language and consciousness of the alien creatures gives rise to speculations about multiple forms of intelligent life. And with flashbacks (and flash-forwards) playing an increasingly crucial role in the characterization of Louise, both the story and the film itself begin to look like decidedly “cosmic” forms of time-travel.
Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer do some very nice work in balancing the disparate elements of a tale that is both an intimate earthbound character drama and an epic-sized, unearthly adventure in what might be taken as the frontiers of consciousness and thought. The flash-cut emotions of Louise’s personal drama register with just enough authority to keep things afloat, especially when the intellectual vertigo of the story’s more abstract concerns threatens to emerge.
Adams’ qualities of ethereal earthiness are the film’s ultimate unifying force here. And she and Renner both do fine work as humans who are special and different in ways that can make them seem, for a moment or two, rather “otherworldly” themselves.