Most cinematic alien visits don’t result in a tidal wave of tears, but Arrival isn’t like most cinematic alien visits. It’s not really like E.T., either, one of the only genuine extraterrestrial-aided tearjerkers in existence, but perhaps the two are more linked than a cursory plot comparison would suggest. If anyone can get the waterworks flowing like Elliot’s botanist buddy from space, surely it’s Amy Adams.
The consistently compelling actress is at the peak of her game here, pulling off a performance so poignant and (let’s just say it) perfect that it’s a little surprising when the alien visitors she converses with throughout the plot don’t simply bow down to her. She is so good that appropriately applying adjectives to her acting feels almost impossible. It's ironic that it would take Adams playing a linguist with all the words to leave me without any to reasonably praise her performance. How can work of such staggering subtlety be described?
Since that question is rhetorical, allow this plain description of her character instead. Adams is Louise, a mother who tells of how she lost her daughter and then of how she was recruited by the military to crack the language barrier when a group of aliens land their towering spaceship in a Montana field, among other sites across the planet.
With the two narrative strands established, Arrival focuses much of its plot on a greatly engaging, immediately intelligent look at the bureaucratic red tape and communicative complexities associated with first contact, but manages to hang its emotional power on that moment when a parent first holds their child or when they play together years later or interact casually years after that. It’s not that this is as much a tale of parenting as it is a tale of visiting aliens; it’s actually more about parenting than anything else.
This marks a very creative and unusual approach. The primary plot that dominates much of the running time is essentially secondary to the true and truly gripping dramatic power of the parenting subplot and yet the alien plot is absolutely crucial to getting us and Louise from point A to point B. Everything there feeds the main theme; it’s just not necessarily a theme the feeding initially makes clear.
So, there are no bait-and-switch tactics in play here meant merely to shock and awe the audience. This isn’t a twist reveal intended to provide an answer to an obviously posed question, nor is it a crafty bit of genre reidentification, pretending to be speculative sci-fi when in reality it’s a domestic drama. The pieces connect so that all is important, everything is necessary. The way the B plot ascends in importance via the well examined particulars of the A plot is fascinating, a structural triumph for Eric Heisserer’s great script, itself a superlative adaptation of Ted Chiang’s brilliant short story.
Where the story ends up is a deeply moving, achingly clever realization that what we have to learn about the aliens is actually something to learn about ourselves, that a world-changing event like first contact and all the military hand-wringing that goes with it can mean a lot of things to many different people, but in one very specific, very interesting case, it means that to love a child is, quite simply, an experience so beautiful that it not only transcends time, but even eradicates the cruelties of its linearity.
That may seem a sentimental simplification of the movie’s (and Chiang’s) smartly thought-provoking concepts of chronology, but the beauty of Arrival is how it gently tickles the brain and the heart with equal care, never betraying one to prop up the other. The ideas and possibilities gleaned from the contact with the aliens would be fascinating on their own and only become more potently profound when filtered through such a human lens of parental experience.
Filmmaker Denis Villeneuve has made an impressive, exciting career out of telling dark tales, from a requiem for the victims of a Montreal school shooting in Polytechnique to an arachnophobic account of Jake Gyllenhaal’s doppelganger discovery in Enemy to a sombre observation of the border-straddling drug war in Sicario. He’s hardly known for attempting an uplifting angle, but while Arrival has its own share of tragedy, its most powerful thematic element is a transcendent embrace of love that Villeneuve communicates optimistically.
He tempers the tear-jerking temptation of the story by once again collaborating with composer Johann Johansson, who provides the alien portion of the narrative with a strange, droning score that mirrors the military’s anxiety around why the aliens have arrived and what they want. Villeneuve employs a beautiful, soothing track by Max Richter for the more moving moments and the juxtaposition of the opposing music styles makes for a stirring mix.
Other than that, though, Villeneuve most relies on Adams to sell the emotions that lurk beneath the surface of the story and are fully unleashed in an overwhelming final few minutes. It’s a wise decision and very much in line with Villeneuve’s past efforts, but seeing him lean on such a warmly expressive and altogether lovely actress as Adams to generate such a convincing comingling of sadness, happiness, and love is an especially entrancing highlight of the director’s filmography.
The rest of the cast contributes well, too. Jeremy Renner offers excellent support as a theoretical physicist working alongside Louise and Forest Whitaker’s memorable presence fits his under-pressure Colonel role rather snugly, but Arrival quite clearly belongs to its leading lady. Everyone else is just along for the richly rewarding ride.
It seems odd to focus so little on the extra-terrestrial element in a movie about first contact, but that’s the way Arrival works. The aliens are the keys to the doors Louise’s story passes through, but the heart of this tale is intrinsically human. How can one put into words the mental and emotional worth of the bond shared between parent and child? Many explanations and descriptions exist, but for those times when words fail us, there’s Amy Adams telling us all we need to know with only a look.