Director Denis Villenueve (Prisoners, Enemy, Sicario) is so brilliant at shooting a beautiful scene and setting a mood that he gets away with a lot, narratively. In Sicario he never questioned the idea that a street drug dealer in Mexico with five sub-machine guns pointed at him would commit certain suicide trying to shoot back. They’re crazy drug dealers! Plus them dying in a hail of bullets will look really cool! And damned if it didn’t look cool. It looked so cool most of the audience probably didn’t question it either. The most intense action sequences since Heat will make you overlook little lapses in logic like that. And Sicario was a step forward from Prisoners, a 153-minute movie about vengeance that never really questioned the idea of vengeance.
Villeneuve’s latest, Arrival, written by Eric Heisserer (based on a story by Ted Chiang), is another film that’s more probably more clever than it is creative, but it’s also another leap forward for Villeneuve, one step closer to exploring concepts rather than simply arranging them. Just as impressive, his fastball’s getting faster even as he expands his repertoire. Not only is Arrival his most thoughtful film, it’s probably his most competently crafted, even for a guy who makes his bones being cinema’s most competent craftsman.
Still, on a lot of levels, Arrival is more a smart arrangement of existing alien movie narratives than it is a new one. The aliens arrive in cool ships, which utilize technologies our human brains can scarcely fathom, and when the government needs someone to communicate with them, they tap the unlikely, lonely academic still reeling from the loss of a child, in this case played by Amy Adams. Could this experience with the aliens help heal old wounds from her personal life? To be sure, the dead kid flashbacks eventually come to something more, which is part of why I think Arrival is Villeneuve’s best to date. But the problem with retroactively defying a trope is that while we’re watching it, it still feels like the trope. You think “Aw jeez, not another dead kid flashback,” and the movie says “Well what if it wasn’t a dead kid flashback? Would that make it better?”
It does, but I also can’t go back in time to reexperience it. Mostly though, Arrival serves up the familiar with such a flourish that you don’t really mind. The general idea of wise, benevolent aliens who come to Earth bearing gifts that we’re too fractious and war-like to receive is pretty old and dull at this point, but like virtually all of Villeneuve’s movies, Arrival is triumph of execution, not of concept. He piles cool trick on top of cool trick, starting with Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams’ character, the linguist) and Ian Donnelly’s (Jeremy Renner’s character, the physicist) entry into the spaceship, which, thanks to an alien gravity control device, turns the scene into a dazzling exercise in shifting perspective. The aliens themselves turn out to be massive, didgeridoo-voiced elephant trunk things, who hang out in smoky rooms and squirt complex ink sentences with their squid hands. I’ll be honest, I’ve never seen aliens who communicate via inky smoky ring blown from squid hands, that’s quite a touch. The beauty of Villeneuve is that he’ll take a familiar concept like alien first contact and treat it more like a designer’s white box challenge than a creative crutch.
The most inventive element of the film is that the plot revolves around a linguistic challenge. The aliens communicate in these inky smoke puffs, which are not only cool to look at, but, according Dr. Louise Banks (perfect Amy Adams character name), they’re an example of “non-linear orthography.” As in, their sentences have no beginning or end, but rather exist as a kind of infinity circle or ouroboros snake. It’s a beautiful plot device because it can’t entirely be fathomed, so we just have to take the movie’s word for it, an element of the time travel paradox similar to Doctor Strange. It’s also a retroactive explanation of one of Dr. Banks’ lines at the beginning of the film, “There are certain days that define your story beyond your life.”
Arrival is a riff on two linguistic concepts. One, which Dr. Banks mentions by name, is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, where language affects (or determines, depending how strongly you interpret the concept) thought. The idea that language influences thought isn’t quite the magic trick in real life as it is in the movie, but that’s science fiction’s job — to find magic in the mundane and the arcane. And Sapir-Whorf is Arrival‘s dinosaur DNA encased in amber. The other idea, not mentioned by name, but underpinning the entire plot, is the “embodied cognition of time.” That’s where different cultures have different spatial perceptions of time. Western cultures think of time as moving from left to right or backwards to forwards (the future in front, the past behind), whereas Mandarin speakers are likely to think of time moving vertically, from top to bottom. It was recently discovered that a tribe in New Guinea thinks of time as flowing uphill, and not in a straight line. With its smoke-enshrouded didgeridoo elephants and their squid hands, Arrival is essentially asking What if time was a circle? Which is fairly novel, with all due respect to Rust Cohle. The aliens are actually kind of McConaughey-esque, now that I think about it, flying through space in a giant vape cloud. Far out, man.
Could Arrival do without the bellicose military industrial complex constantly angling to screw things up? Absolutely. Not to mention, in this case, they’re constantly micromanaging a rather technical linguistics project in ways that don’t make much sense. At least, other than hearkening back to the rich tradition of military representatives being the bad guys in everything from E.T. to Alien and beyond. A familiar story element works when it’s a jumping off point, not when it feels like you’re doing something a certain way automatically, because that’s the way it’s been done, without even remembering why. It’s vestigial plotting.
Likewise, Arrival‘s riff on the linguistics of time (and by extension life and mortality) is so smart and so beautiful that I wish it wasn’t also grafted to the trope of tragic motherhood. Especially coming so relatively soon after Sandra Bullock’s dead daughter flashbacks (and spaceship as womb metaphors…) in Gravity. It’s a relationship that goes at least as far back as Aliens, which gave Ripley a daughter, then deleted the scene and then added it back again in the extended version. These are all fine in a vacuum, but if you keep seeing the same story element across different films you start to wonder why it has to be there. Like maybe Hollywood feels compelled to explain why the heroine is up there hanging with aliens instead of home taking care of her kids.
Arrival is clever enough to turn this trope on its head a bit, but it does it retroactively, as a twist (without spoiling too much). A good third act twist expands on what came before it, whereas Arrival‘s mostly just justifies it. For me that makes it not quite a brilliant film, but definitely a hell of a movie.