What is your purpose on Earth? This fundamental question dwells at the heart of Denis Villeneuve’s bold, affecting sci-fi of big ideas. The film has the patience and confidence in its audience to delve deep into the meaning of that question.
When twelve otherworldly craft appear across the globe, offering no intent, the confused military recruit linguists professor Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) to help communicate with the alien visitors, known as Heptapods. And we’re with her all the way to their introduction, Bradford Young’s drifting camera wisely focusing on her awe. This is her story, but surrounded by some engaging characters struggling to comprehend the situation and convey to us what it might actually be like if such an event unfolded. There’s the usual trope of conflict with the government considering their knowledge superior, but this does not consume the narrative.
Instead the focus is on the solace Banks finds in military scientist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), her intellectual equivalent and partner in unravelling the mysterious language. Their abilities are borderline absurd, requiring the audience to mostly just go with it. A typical issue with this material. Once past here the film, fortunately, becomes more introspective and astute in its themes of loss, memory and effect of time.
Villeneuve has previously proved himself, like the Heptapods mirroring a walk, to be an adept imitator. Like Ang Lee or David Fincher, he fancies genre-hopping, but the results have been some what empty. His latest, however, is more refined, ascending beyond his contemporaries recent efforts at the genre. It has an emotional weight, delivered both by a dolorous performance from Amy Adams and a deep understanding of cinematic language to carry us towards a shattering climax.
Arrival’s simple message of modern civilisation’s importance to listen and learn from each other is hardly subtle, but it’s certainly admirable amongst an era of city-leveling cinema. Going back to that question, Louise explains the importance of the Heptapods understanding the difference between you and your. Language has seemingly simple barriers, but this hopeful film suggests that we’re lost as a species without the capacity to make that distinction.