Arrival is an engrossing, smart science fiction movie. Like most science fiction movies that are interested in science rather than chase scenes and explosions, Arrival is not about doing science, although the science is respected. It tells a story about the way science, in this case linguistics, could solve an important problem. The “problem” on the table is the simultaneous arrival of twelve interstellar vessels, and what the beings inside them want from, or for, humanity.
Amy Adams plays the lead role, Louise Banks, a gifted linguist. Louise has done work for the military before, so when the extraterrestrial “shells” show up, she is one of the people the military and the government reach out to. At first, Colonel Weber (played by Forest Whitaker) will not agree to Louise’s conditions, but upon some reflection, he changes his mind and Louise is whisked off to Montana. Then, for the first time, she is taken into a chamber in the ship, and sees the beings who have arrived.
The film manages to be beautiful and somewhat minimalist at the same time. The central problem is, simply, how to communicate accurately with the squidlike beings called heptapods. In the background, we see scenes of global civil unrest, and the tension and suspense come from the reactions of other nations, specifically China, which is growing restive and more bellicose by the minute.
The movie, though, is about Louise, trying to make contact, dealing with grief and trying to decipher what is happening to her memory as her ability to read the heptapod language improves. Adams is the brain and heart of this movie, and her performance is more than equal to the task. There should be at least a Golden Globe nomination in her future for this film.
I have a quibble about the field of linguistics as it’s portrayed here. Louise, as well as being a brilliant scientist who studies language, also quite conveniently speaks several. That’s great and it’s needed to some extent for a plot point to work, but linguists study the mechanics (physical and cerebral) of language; they don’t have to be polyglots. I wasn’t sure this film pointed out that distinction.
Jeremy Renner also delivers a solid supporting performance as physicist Ian Donnelly, who thinks that the heptapod language might affect how the human brain perceives time. I wish this character had done a little more, and made more of a contribution to the—Hey! Who left this unevaluated assumption lying here? I just tripped over it!
Oh, wait. I think that’s mine.
Yes, it is mine. I recognize it now. Generally, in movies with male main characters, female supporting roles do very little. (See my comments on the Machel McAdams role in Doctor Strange.) I deplore this. At the same time, about halfway through Arrival, I started getting… well, almost a little itchy. A niggle of cognitive dissonance was bugging me and it was right where I couldn’t reach. After a few minutes I thought, “I wonder why Renner doesn’t do more in this film.” It was only later that I realized how thoroughly I have internalized the convention that Men Must Do the Most, must Save the Day, Be the Hero, Have the Breakthrough. Ian does none of that. His science is there to support linguistics, and his character there to support Louise, who is the center of the story. Ian’s role is perfect and Renner delivered an excellent supporting performance.
Is the film being “subversive?” Maybe. If so it is sticking closely to Ted Chiang’s source material, “The Story of your Life,” and possibly Chiang was being subversive. The role relationships worked great and I was interested in my own reaction to it. The failing here is with me, not the story.
The film lets you learn a little bit about linguistics (and physics) without lecturing; while clearly several aspects of the science in the story have been simplified or dumbed down, the film still lets the viewer think, and it’s a deeply touching story. The film is a little slow, which I liked, actually. See it with a smart person, and you’ll have lots to talk about afterward.