Talking to aliens

Amy Adams must bridge the human-alien language gap in Arrival

Talking to aliens
Amy Adams delivers a powerful performance as a linguist trying to communicate with extraterrestrials.

You've seen some variation of this scene in any number of alien invasion movies: humans and aliens meet for the first time, and then the aliens immediately begin speaking English. There's always some exposition to wave it away — telepathy, maybe, or perhaps technology, or, in one exceptional instance, a tiny fish lodged in everyone's ear canal — and then the story quickly moves on before audiences can get too stuck on the mechanics of it.

In many of these films, that moment is the single most unbelievable element: I can suspend my disbelief to accept the idea of intergalactic parallel evolution, but the thought that a civilization from light-years away could master the complexities of the English language in a split second is too much for me to swallow, even in an age of Google Translate. Based on a short story by Seattle-area sci-fi author Ted Chiang, Arrival lingers in that complicated moment of first contact, when human and alien first lock eyes (or lock eyes and antennae, or whatever) and get down to the very difficult business of communication.

Part of the joy of Arrival is in its sense of surprise, and so I'll spare you the spoilers, but here are the basics: Amy Adams plays Dr. Louise Banks, a world-class linguist who is summoned by the U.S. government when a mysterious object appears in Montana. Her job is to find some way to communicate with creatures who do not resemble us, who do not understand our language, and who may not even possess body parts that allow them to speak. Louise is joined by Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a physicist who, in typical movie-science manner, seems to possess expertise in anything the plot requires: statistics, math, atmospherics.

Don't let the sci-fi trappings fool you: Arrival is not a fast-paced effects thriller. It's a deliberately paced (but not slow) and thoughtful (but not ponderous) movie about the act of learning. Louise must determine how not just to ask questions, but how to teach the idea of what a question, linguistically speaking, even is.

You've likely seen some films — Contact and Interstellar come to mind — that equate the moment of first contact with grief, say, or fear of letting down those you love. And at first blush, Arrival seems like it could be setting up a treacly climax. But hewing closely to Chiang's cerebral story, director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario, Enemy, Prisoners) holds sentimentality at bay. This is not to say it's chilly. With Arrival, Villeneuve has crafted his most fully realized film yet: it is gorgeous, smart and supremely confident, and it also taps into a deep well of genuine human emotion. This is an alien-invasion movie that has something new to say.

It helps that Villeneuve gets the most out of his cast. Adams is always exquisite, but this is a rare film that meets her level of engagement. Renner, who can be hit-or-miss, gives a personable and wise performance. Forest Whitaker, as the military liaison, carries a crushing weight of expectations on his shoulders in every scene. And Michael Stuhlbarg, as a weaselly and cynical CIA agent, continues to prove that he should one day win an Oscar as the lead in a Ted Cruz biopic.

You'll want to attend Arrival with a friend — probably your most worldly friend — because it's the kind of movie that will leave you bursting with words and thoughts. There's so much to discuss here, and there's nothing worse than feeling that spray of language roiling in your gut, and looking around and seeing that there's nobody there to listen, or to talk. In those moments, the universe feels like a cold and lonely place. ♦

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