Language is Key: A Review of ‘Arrival’

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Photo courtesy of esquire.com
Amy Adams is incredible in her role as an expert linguist that attempts to decipher the language of an invading alien race in “Arrival.”

Michael Lane, Copy Editor

While the sci-fi genre is typically reserved for high-stake, big-budget action, director Denis Villeneuve’s latest, “Arrival” consciously stands apart from its peers. Villeneuve and writer Eric Heisserer opt for a wonderfully human and refreshingly grounded take on the alien invasion tale in what is one of the year’s absolute best films.

The film appropriately begins with an arrival, though not one of the alien variety, but instead one of childbirth. Over the course of a few minutes, through montage and monologue, we’re effectively introduced to the film’s lead, Louise Banks (Amy Adams), as she cradles her newborn daughter in the initial moments. We quickly move through the child’s life from infant to toddler to teenager, watching the loving relationship between mother and daughter grow before her child’s life is cut painfully short due to a rare illness. The film’s opening is intensely emotional, while also remarkable in its ability to give such depth to a character and her situation with so little time.

We come to learn that Louise is one of the world’s top linguistics experts, and while she’s in the middle of a lecture, 12 identical, enormous alien spaceships all seemingly appear from out of thin air in 12 locations across the globe. China, Russia, Australia and the American site that the film focuses on, Montana, are among the 12 areas of which the monolithic ships now stay. Military and governmental forces in each respective country are quick to send in their own forces to learn about these mysterious ships.

Louise is then asked by U.S. Army Col. Weber (Forest Whitaker) to lead the Montana team, whose purpose is to decode the language of the aliens. Louise agrees to help, working alongside military personnel as well as theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) in order to understand the alien language and ask them their purpose on Earth.

In a truly captivating scene, we’re introduced to the aliens, in which the military has begun referring to as Heptapods. But even as we’re presented with the compelling mystery that comes with these extraterrestrial life forms, “Arrival” becomes less concerned with the aliens and aligns its themes instead with human conflict.

Louise and Ian make minimal progress early on, learning that communicating with the Heptapods through written language works better than verbal communication. It’s nearly impossible to decode their language verbally, but even in written form, the Heptapods use a form of writing that is almost equally as challenging to understand. Heptapod writing has no beginning or end, instead being a singular, circular symbol that conveys an entire sentence of meaning through its specific shapes.

Louise decides to take her time with the project, knowing that they will need to teach the Heptapods simple English grammar before they can begin asking questions. But every time the American team makes any progress in learning the Heptapod’s language, Chinese forces move closer to attacking their own respective spacecraft.

The second act of “Arrival” hinges on this constant tension. Communication between human groups dwindles just as Louise begins making advancements with the Heptapod language.

“Arrival” is at all times engaging, rewarding viewers who pay close attention with an intriguing script that involves unsuspecting, totally earned twists and an emotionally resonant ending that comes full circle with the film’s opening. More than that, the cinematography by Bradford Young is absolutely stellar, crafting beautifully rendered scenes throughout. The looming, ominous soundtrack by Jóhann Jóhannsson is just as equally impressive, making for one of my favorite film scores of 2016.

While there are many wonderful aspects at play in the film’s periphery and behind the camera, the main draw on-screen is the magnificent performance from Adams. This is her film as much as it is Villeneuve’s. The rest of the acting on display here is of similar quality, but it is Adams’ performance that holds the film together.

“Arrival” had a dazzling effect on me from its first moments until the closing credits. Director Villeneuve offers a unique take on the alien invasion genre that is definitely worth seeing, and one that you’ll likely be talking about for the rest of the year.

Michael Lane
Michael Lane is a junior public relations/advertising major with a marketing minor. This is his second year as a Flyer copy editor. He unabashedly loves the 90s sitcom “Roseanne.”

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