Arrival (Preview)
Reviewed by Robert Koehler

Amy Adams as Louise Banks in Arrival.

Produced by Shawn Levy, Dan Levine, Aaron Ryder, and David Linde; directed by Denis Villeneuve; written by Eric Heisserer, based on “The Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang; cinematography by Bradford Young; edited by Joe Walker; production design by Patrice Vermette; costume design by Renée April; music by Jóhann Jóhannsson; starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Tzi Ma. Color, 116 min. A Paramount Pictures release.

Arrival, the new film written by Eric Heisserer from Ted Chaing’s short story “The Story of Your Life” is directed by Denis Villeneuve. But first and most of all, it is written. And even more, it is writing about language that makes it clear that language matters, that language is in fact the key to everything. Near the beginning of Heisserer’s screenplay, theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) meets our hero, linguistic expert Louise Banks (Amy Adams), quoting back to her a line from her textbook’s introduction, that “language is the foundation of civilization.” He adds that she’s wrong, that “science is the foundation of civilization.” The man who’s brought them together, Army Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) then comments, “That’s why you’re both here.” Heisserer sets the table for a friendly debate, but there’s no question well before the end of Arrival who wins.

The movie arrives at a fascinating moment, and the issues it raises may make it the year’s most important—if not best—movie made in English. The first question that rises to the surface is, who is the author of a film? Critics and academics who remain pulled to the French orbit of how the art form is perceived insist on the primacy of the director as auteur, and from festivals to even such Directors Guild–approved (and studio-sanctioned) credits as “A Film by Denis Villeneuve,” the myth persists. I’ve argued elsewhere that auteurism should be viewed skeptically. That unless you’re a James Benning, operating your own camera, determining what that camera captures, creating the edit, supervising and controlling every aspect of the sound and image, and that you have legal ownership the way actual authors have copyright, you’re not really the author. You’re just the director; maybe you’re the boss (and even that’s usually not the case, unless you’re also lead producer), but “auteur”? No.

The translating crew aboard the alien ship.

Never mind that pesky possessory credit that pops up during the close of Arrival: this is a movie par excellence of adaptation, a work of sharing, which happens to be a key theme in the story’s geopolitical narrative. It begins with Chiang, a writer of science fiction with a heavy stress on the science. “The Story of Your Life” is long as short stories go, narrated in the voice of Louise as a mother speaking to her dead daughter, Hannah. (Her name, Louise explains, was deliberately chosen because it’s a palindrome.) Louise is selected by the U.S. military to help translate the language of an alien race that has landed at twelve sites around the world, from Khartoum to Shanghai, Montana to Siberia. Chiang’s story delves into the way of examining language as a mathematician might, and it demonstrates in language that fiction—much better than cinema—can express nonlinearity, which turns out to be the key that unlocks Louise’s understanding of Heptapoid, the term humans give to the alien Heptapods’ language.

Chiang’s story can be dense, and difficult for nonscience fans. (It even includes math diagrams inside the text.) It lacks a villain, or even an antagonist. It doesn’t read at all like the material for a three-act commercial movie produced by a Hollywood studio. It almost seems to go out of its way to remove any sense of conflict from the narrative. This is a quiet story about process, of internal discovery, on the ways that scientists can listen to their hearts, and the ways they might talk to loved ones when they get home from work.

Heisserer’s task of adapting this is almost ridiculous. If you squint between the lines of the story, it’s possible to imagine some kind of sci-fi drama, at least the drama of the story’s close encounter of the third kind. The situation set up in the story certainly contains all sorts of naturally visual elements. But Heisserer must construct something new from the stuff of the story, and in this sense, the screenplay of Arrival is to “The Story of Your Life” what Mendelssohn’s composition of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is to Shakespeare’s play. The essential spirit and ideas are intact and the meaning hasn’t been altered, but the form and details are totally separate. Scenes become sonic passages; characters become instruments; acts become movements. Just as Mendelssohn interpreted the play’s contrasting worlds of humans and fairies of the forest, Heisserer interprets Chiang’s story in entirely new terms. These are the terms demanded by the commercial screenplay with its essential ingredients of three-act structure, inciting incidents, second-act complications, final-act conflict and resolution—little of which is in Chiang’s original.

Amy Adams as Louise Banks aboard the alien ship.

Given these demands, it’s interesting that Heisserer chooses not to develop a conflicting drama between Louise and Ian, introduced as the opposite poles of language versus science. Instead, he patiently lays out the elements of two parallel narrative tracks, one explicit, one sneaky. The explicit track is that the ensuing debate is between the two civilian humanists who stake their claim to inquiry through hypothesis and proof, and a military/government culture that instantly assumes the alien presence is a threat requiring preparation for war. The script, while rigorously remaining in the expansive Montana meadow setting where a Heptapod ship is hovering and the military has set up base, internationalizes this conflict in two ways. Reports saturate the airwaves of predictably rampant social unrest around the world, especially in already unstable places like Venezuela, and prompting a particularly aggressive and hair-trigger Chinese response. (More on this later.) The other element in this global picture is that the cultural discord between the Louise/Ian side and the military is playing out not only in the United States, but also between the civilian experts and the military in other countries like Russia. (The difference in Russia is that the expert is finally shot dead.) Louise’s skilled and brave approach to the Heptapods intrinsically encourages dialogue, which swiftly leads to a buildup of Heptapoidal vocabulary—their “words” form nearly completed circles that resemble a mix of Japanese ink writing and Sam Francis’s most minimalist paintings—which leads to a closer understanding of the Heptapods’ purpose for being here. Ian, ever the keen observer, sees that Louise’s approach not only gets results but also applies science, and a bond is quietly formed. Language and science present a united front of reason against reactionary war machinery.

The sneaky part is that under this bond is a love story—two of them really, operating in a kind of counterchronology…

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Cineaste, Vol. XLII, No. 2