For the first half of its two-hour running time, Arrival unfolds remarkably like a science fiction story from 1949. Alien beings have made contact, inscrutably. The military deploys its might (I like to believe that’s stock footage of a fleet assembling at sea) — but wait! We might just have a chance if a lone academic, snatched straight from her linguistics classroom, can translate the aliens’ mysterious language. Will it be a war of the worlds, or will we give peace a chance?
Director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario) brings us to that midpoint with a patient sense of atmosphere and portent — even, at moments, wonder. The alien ships are ovoid rocklike masses that hover over the ground like Magritte’s Castle of the Pyrenees. To meet their inhabitants, you hop on a hydraulic lift underneath one of the ships and ride upwards until the laws of physics change.
You’re then greeted by beings that look like the result of crossbreeding between elephants and cypress trees. Their spoken language resembles the sound you make the first time the alarm goes off in the morning, and understanding their written language is essentially equivalent to decoding a coffee stain.
The heroic humanist is named Louise and played by Amy Adams, who seems to have been told to go for that luminous-yet-weary glow. We see glimpses of her life with a dying daughter, which would seem to explain the weariness. She’s given a buddy: Ian (Jeremy Renner), whose profession reflects the fact that if humanity has learned anything from Jurassic Park, it’s that when faced with massive and possibly hostile creatures, you’re going to want a hunky mathematician named Ian.
Just when it starts to look like the plot might actually hinge on theories of language and cognition (not that anyone bothers to call a psychologist or an anthropologist — this is no time for the soft sciences), Eric Heisserer’s script takes an abrupt turn. In a poorly-explained development, Louise gets a critical piece of information from an unexpected source, and then suddenly Villeneuve is trying to half-ass an entire Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
By the end of Arrival, the aliens have been left entirely behind. Louise’s growing friendship with one of the beings is abandoned so that the film can get back to her babymaking, with the broader implications of Louise’s newfound powers left entirely unexamined. The aliens must feel pretty used, and so did I.