During a dreamy montage of memories in the opening moments of “Arrival”, Amy Adams voices a simple yet profound thought: “Between the beginning and the end lie the days that define our lives.” This may at first seem like a snippet of Fortune Cookie inspiration, but as we watch fleeting moments of Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) with her daughter the significance of these words begin to sink in. Louise wears a wedding ring but has apparently lost her husband, and now stands to lose her daughter as well. In a way, this introduction feels very similar to Disney’s “Up” in the way it quickly develops the main character by highlighting moments in their life that has defined who they are now while squeezing your heart in the process.
Dr. Banks is a complex woman. She’s respected in her field, but her her professional expertise and social confidence don’t align very well. A thin fog of anguish and loneliness encases her. The unfulfilling routine of her life abruptly changes once 12 extra-terrestrial ships arrive in random locations across the globe. There doesn’t seem to be any logical reason to the locations these massive “Shells” chose to appear, nor does there seem to be any indication as to the nature of their visit. The military quickly recruits Dr. Banks to help in establishing communication with the visitors and she is whisked away to one of the landing sites. On the flight over she is introduced to another gifted mind, Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a mathematician whose character is so strongly reminiscent of another great mathematician named Ian* that it has to be an intentional homage.
Ian and Louise quickly form a bond of mutual respect and admiration, but this is no rom-com. Once contact is made with the alien beings, there is very little time to establish a common form of communication and try to understand the intent behind their visit. Frustrations and paranoia are increasing exponentially around the world, and like any tense situation it only takes one careless spark to set everything ablaze.
Denis Villeneuve’s skill as a director is already quite clear in his previous films such as “Sicario,” “Prisoners,” and “Enemy.” Each of those films carries a razor sharp darkness with them, both visually and metaphorically. But in “Arrival” he explores a softer palate that blankets in hope. Louise’s memories are always in such shallow focus and intimately close we feel as if we are sharing the dreams with her. Counterbalancing these emotional moments is the fascinating scientific side of establishing communication with an alien race with whom we share no common reference. Both Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer have done an incredible job not only developing this fictional language for the film, but then giving it a reason to exist within the narrative, and then being able to explain it to the audience in a way that is scientifically and linguistically feasible.
The combination of emotional memories, science, linguistics, and aliens may sound like a potential mess on paper. But that’s a big part of the genius behind this film. It’s all tied together, and all absolutely integral to the story. Like a massive cosmic circle, all of these elements exist in a way to complement one another. “Arrival” is an incredibly rare film that successfully simulates both the heart and mind and should not be missed.
*Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum – Jurassic Park)