Arrival, a Best Picture Oscar nominee that hits home video this week, is a poem about time. That may seem a lofty description of a sci-fi movie about a dozen alien spacecrafts hovering over various parts of Earth, but that’s what it shakes out as. Its direction, by Denis Villeneuve, is sure and deliberate and hushed; Villeneuve, I’m guessing, coached his cast seldom to speak much above a murmur. That befits a movie about human communication and its limits — limits founded in our equally limited understanding of time.
This is a pensive experience that evokes something very much like awe, though on some level it’s a bit of a letdown. Unlike, say, 2001 or Solaris (either version), it hews too closely to conventional narrative, to a Hollywood knot cinching things together for the popcorn-munchers. Ultimately it acquiesces to a human viewpoint, wedded to a third-act conflict ginned up by our brusque modern boogeyman China. (Then it wipes that conflict away conveniently with the gentle spectre of grief.) I am trying to step lightly around the plot, which is, in any event, not the best reason to see nor the best level on which to process Arrival.
What I can tell you is that the aliens almost-land, and the military, represented by Forest Whitaker, recruits linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to find out what the visitors want. The visitors, when we see them, are foggily-seen critters the humans call “heptapods.” They look sinister as hell, and they communicate via inky, jagged circles drawn in the air (or their version of air — they are separated from the humans by a transparent barrier). Louise’s job is to figure out what the language-circles mean, and somewhere offscreen she devises a code. It’s clear Villeneuve and scripter Eric Heisserer aren’t interested in the linguistic nuts and bolts of how Louise deciphers the heptapods’ scribbles. The real point of the film isn’t the literal meaning of the language but its shape.
I suppose this is old news to veteran science-fiction readers; even if we discount the movie’s source material, Ted Chiang’s 1998 novella “The Story of Your Life,” there’s Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five and its Tralfamadorians with their apprehension of time as simultaneity. A man, or a teenage girl, who is alive now is also dead elsewhere in time, and vice versa. Arrival hints and feints at a new way of reckoning life, time, and lifetime, but then wraps it neatly in a Chicken Soup for the Soul formulation along the lines of “If you knew how your life would play out, would you do the same things?” This yokes the story’s metaphysical concerns to a comforting tale of someone who knows that certain choices she will make will lead to heartbreak eventually, but who makes them anyway.
It’s comforting because we in the audience can’t know our future, but are reassured that whatever choice we do make will be for the best — Desiderata and its “the universe is unfolding as it should” writ large (tell that to the Syrians). That remains to be seen, always. The movie falters at the end zone. I don’t know what it should have done; maybe the accumulation of awe and mystique sort of paints the film into a literalist corner. But most of it is masterfully assembled, with great near-wordless performances from Renner (whose gobsmacked smile after his first trip inside the spacecraft is perfect) and especially Adams, who conveys everything we want from a hero without stepping outside the bounds of a fallible human. “HUMAN,” reads Louise’s first volley of English language to the visitors, as if that were the most impressive fact about her instead of the equivalent of a gnat holding up a sign to us reading “GNAT.” As best I can recall, the aliens, in one of the film’s very few concessions to humor, politely let that slide.