However you feel about Denis Villeneuve, you have to hand it to the Quebecois director: He knows how to start a film. His latest, Arrival, balances two significant, image-driven arcs in its first few minutes. The first concerns the tragically brief motherhood of linguistics professor Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), who we see in a montage giving birth to a daughter and raising her all the way through the girl’s death as a teenager from a rare disease. The second shows the sudden appearance of UFOs in various corners of the globe, kicking off a worldwide frenzy of fear. Louise finds herself deputized into service by the military’s attempts to deal with the situation, brought in to try and decipher a language of guttural roars and hisses to facilitate communication between humans and aliens.
Approaching the alien invasion genre from this angle, Eric Heisserer’s script offers Villeneuve his most cerebral subject matter yet. Despite the grandiose scale of its set design and the narrative’s massive stakes, this is arguably Villeneuve’s most aesthetically simple film. Many scenes play out in interactions between giant, squid-like aliens on one side and Banks, mathematician Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), and a handful of military personnel on the other. No visual élan is needed given that all of the focus lies in the complexity of exchanging even basic ideas, particularly given that the aliens’ written language is nothing more than circles of ink whose words can only be discerned in subtle variations in blotches and streaks within the circles. The leftfield construction of this language is ingenious, and watching Banks and her team gradually learn to discern sentences and even write back is more thrilling than nearly any action set piece in a blockbuster this year.
The interspecies communication occurs against a boilerplate, The Day the Earth Stood Still-esque narrative of global political anxiety, in which civilians around the world riot and create resource shortages in mass panic and nations like China and Russia prefer first-strike responses to attempts at understanding. That the alien language is so abnormal to any human alphabet also makes Arrival the highest-profile film yet to explore the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which states that the grammatical rules and descriptive nature of a language determine the worldview of its speakers.
The latter narrative thread helps to resolve the escalating tensions of the former, albeit with a laughable deus ex machina device that reduces the majority of Arrival’s final act to a recursive lark in which every problem is solved as soon as it presents itself. It’s just a montage in recapitulation of Banks’s maternal arc, and in a manner that’s supposed to be moving, but comes off as trite and emptily manipulative. Nonetheless, the film’s clever linguistic narrative is too compelling to shrug off, and Villeneuve has achieved the rare feat of communicating the wonder of a Steven Spielberg alien movie within a decidedly hard sci-fi milieu.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 8–18.