Denis Villeneuve’s latest film is an innovative stretching of the science fiction genre. In Arrival, Amy Adams plays Louise, a linguist tasked by the US government to learn a race of extraterrestrials’ language in order to clarify their intentions after they dock twelve spaceships across the globe. Are the aliens here to wage war? To help humanity? Only by the bridge of language will Louise and the government be able to understand.
What separates Arrival from other science fiction films is its approach to how aliens would affect geopolitics. Villeneuve integrates an international game of thrones with the arrival of the aliens in a way that doesn’t simplify global politics. The aliens have landed in a number of countries like the US, China and Russia, incentivizing various governments to both cooperate and disengage with other nations on the global project of decoding alien language. This political struggle of sharing data affects Louise’s chances of success.
The film’s take on linguistics also makes a contribution to diversity in both the science fiction genre and film at large. Oftentimes, linguists and other anthropologists laugh at films like Indiana Jones where anthropologists enter caves to steal other cultures’ artifacts for glory. But in this film, we watch Louise engage with the aliens, treating them as intelligent beings with their own culture and language (they even get their own names!). Eric Heisserer’s screenplay explains enough detail about theories of language on Earth without feeling like an expositional dump. Heisserer and Adams present these theories and their applications in a high-stakes way that even non-English nerds should appreciate.
In addition, each of the major actors is aptly cast. Jeremy Renner’s plays the role of a physicist assisting Louise, while Forest Whitaker portrays a US military officer assigned to supervise Louise’s project. But it’s Amy Adams who stands out, giving a performance with full of range. She’s able to fully show different aspects of Louise, from her depiction as a mother brimming over her child to a determined and ambitious academic ready to contribute to human knowledge.
Yet, the most interesting part of the film is its intricate structure, a key component of Villeneuve’s other projects like Prisoners. Typical of Villeneuve’s style, there are gorgeous, slow pans throughout the film. One of the most memorable shots is when the camera approaches the spaceship from a distance. It’s a beautiful sight to watch as cuts of fog gently wrap around the spaceship. It’s apparent that Villeneuve and Heisserer planned the placement and content of each shot and line of dialogue with calculation, resulting in a masterpiece eager to baffle and surprise viewers. Villeneuve wants his film to challenge science-fiction to stay innovative, to show new subjects, or at least old subjects in different lights. Expect to see this film nominated around awards season.