Denis Villeneuve’s greatest strength—an insistence on syncing his aesthetic goals with his thematic ones—has often also become his most frustrating weakness. The director’s breakthrough Incendies used a sensationalized array of impactful images as a means of galvanizing the dense, globe-trotting narrative of the Wajdi Mouawad play the film was adapted from, and to put a visceral focus on the wrenching personal experiences of the story’s heroine. In contrast, last year’s tense Sicario, about the F.B.I.’s fight to bring down the leader of a Mexican drug cartel, was tainted by irksome horror-movie-worthy soundtrack cues and contrived scenarios of suspense.
Villeneuve seems to sniff out the genre signifiers in virtually every project he gets involved with, a tendency that’s just as likely to bring an emotional dimension to the very impersonal subject of geopolitics as it is to reduce complicated real-world issues like the war on drugs to borderline exploitation. The tipping point has seemed to be to what extent his material indulges in violence and perpetuates an unchecked cynicism.
Arrival, adapted from Ted Chiang’s short story “Story of Your Life,” is the most muted film that Villeneuve has made, as the methodical sci-fi narrative offers little in the way of the coiled tension so central to his overt thrillers, nor does it anchor itself to some cataclysmic tragedy (like Polytechnique, the director’s little-seen film about the École Polytechnique massacre). Instead, what animates Arrival is its intuitive formalism—its translation of Chiang’s sneakily involving prose into an equivalent visual analogue.
The film’s plot is structured as a practical procedural: Following the sudden landing of 12 alien spacecrafts across the planet, linguistics professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and mathematician Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) are recruited to work as partners in a translation effort to engage with the aliens within the craft that hovers above a patch of rural Montana and make sense of their communications via data analysis. Villeneuve sees the relative inaction of this scenario as an opportunity to apply his aesthetic—one that works to actively influence the textual reading of the material—in a way uncomplicated by his usual propensity for genre tropes.
The director primarily emphasizes the depth of his film’s visual field: In one sequence, an aircraft appears first as a tiny blip in a window framing the night sky, slowly coming to dominate the entirety of the space; in another, inside the oblong-shaped alien vessel that arrives in Montana, an undefined source of light beams at the far end of a darkened passageway. Villeneuve uses deliberate distance—an impermeable barrier separates Banks and Donnelly from the aliens they wish to communicate with—to suggest something that could eventually be accessible but only beyond our current vantage, and to symbolize a gradual arrival at a point of understanding.
This aesthetic has a very significant precedent: the film’s source material. Chiang’s “Story of Your Life” is essentially a meta narrative in which the academic language of the text necessitates an active engagement with the subject of linguistics—an effort that’s needed to comprehend a story which is very much about the powerful implications of linguistic comprehension. Villeneuve takes that layer of self-awareness and finds another function: His searching images counterpoint the hyper-articulate methodology of Banks and Donnelly with a sense of imbalance and uncertainty.
At its best, Arrival conjures the thrill of simultaneously learning and discovering that the thing learned has raised myriad new questions, and it does so in a way that’s more emotionally engaging than it often is through Chiang’s more clinical telling of this story. But there are some aspects of “Story of Your Life” that simply make more sense on the page, including an important detail of the chronology, which is disclosed—unfussily, and early on—in Chiang’s text with a simple choice of grammatical tense but which is played, perplexingly, as a twist in this adaptation.
Because Chiang’s short story is so rooted in the minutiae of its language, largely depriving it of a narration, and of internal monologues, leaves a certain void that’s never quite compensated for. With ample space to fill in adapting this short story, Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer have opted to pad out the back half of Arrival with a few inconsequential set pieces and an exaggeration of the original story’s intimate pseudo-science conceit into a plausibility-stretching global phenomenon.
Ultimately though, the limitations of this film may just be inherited from its source. Villeneuve proves just as capable of posing the big questions of life and language that made Chiang’s story so compelling—and he finds his own formal aesthetic to intensify those core themes in a cinematic way. But as with “Story of Your Life,” Arrival has difficulty transcending its calculated meld of form and content, never quite convincingly extending the implications of its sci-fi philosophy outside its own hermetic context.