The moments that change our lives can land with a hush. We panic and fret and cry about what might be, and then when the unthinkable finally happens, the air goes still, like you missed your own death and woke up in the tomb. Movies — especially sci-fi movies like Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival — tend to get this wrong. They think every big moment is big, that when the aliens land, our heads will pound with lasers and explosions and a crashing orchestra. But Villeneuve (Prisoners, Enemy, Sicario) taps into that uncanny quiet. Here, the aliens are announced the same way many of my college classmates found out about 9/11. Linguistics professor Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) walks into her lecture hall and most of her students are gone. A text message chirps, and then another, tiny squawks alerting us that the climate has changed.
Twelve extraterrestrial spacecraft have come to Earth, but not with a thud. Instead, these lozenge-shaped stone ships, each skyscraper-tall, hover silently over everywhere from Shanghai to Siberia to Sierra Leone. Villeneuve won’t show them yet, except on the tiniest TV screen in the background as incomprehensible blobs. (And when he finally does, after 20 minutes of buildup and a slow helicopter cruise over foggy Montana, Villeneuve jolts us by revealing the alien ship over America one beat before we’re expecting it.) For as long as he can, he keeps the camera on Louise and her last moments in the old world: the traffic jam in the school parking lot, the loud zzzzswooooosh of overhead military jets, the cable news she fixated on hoping this will make sense. Arrival is human-size. Her mother calls and Louise groans, “Mom, please don’t bother with that channel — how many times do I have to tell you those people are idiots?”
That line got the movie’s only laugh. It was the day after the election and the theater, too, felt like the world had changed overnight. A new force is in power and no one’s sure what’s next. Whatever it is, it’s bigger than us. It’s happening around the globe. As Louise tells her mom, “We’re not the only ones to have one of these in our backyard.”
There’s panic. This could be war. The U.S. government bans gun sales, but can’t do anything about the rest of the planet, including Russia and China, who mobilize their armies. America is mobilizing them, too. Villeneuve pans across a freshly sprouted military base and the bustle of troops doing things we don’t understand. There are no glass computer screens or 3-D holograms. He keeps the ordinary ordinary — he has a fetish for trucks and antennae — which makes the strange even more surreal.
Every 18 hours, a hole at the bottom of the ship opens up and Louise and a carload of soldiers and scientists are invited inside. Finally, Villeneuve has a chance to dazzle. The team, decked out in deafening orange contagion suits, stare straight up at a vertical tunnel. The first man leaps sideways, and suddenly the rules of gravity are broken. Earth’s laws have been overturned. Villeneuve disorients us by filming the people walking perpendicularly, then right-side up, then upside down. He doesn’t want us to know which perspective is correct. Now nothing is correct. When one man looks down the hollow shaft to the grass, at what he used to consider solid ground, he stammers, “Holy fuck.” Later, he throws up.
Louise has been flown here to translate the aliens' language, which, depending on the word, sounds like ball bearings rattling around an empty detergent jug or a whale learning the didgeridoo. Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) wants an answer to the big question: Do they come in peace? He can’t understand why Louise starts by teaching them her name. So, in a blockbuster-movie first, she dramatically diagrams a sentence. She can’t ask “What do you want?” without knowing if they understand the concept of “you.” She’s not even sure they understand the concept of a question.
When I first saw Arrival two months ago, it felt like a solemn love letter to nerds, people who reach for pencils before pistols. Initially, I was left cold by the subplot about Louise’s dead daughter, a knee-jerk reaction to movies that kill off saintly wives and children to give a thin character depth. (See also: Gravity — can’t a smart lady simply be a smart lady without being a tragic mom?) That played better the second time. In fact, it became beautiful. It’s almost as lovely as the creature design: The aliens look like skeletal squid with seven — not eight — tentacles, a limb count that exists nowhere in biology. Louise’s assigned partner, a physicist named Ian (Jeremy Renner), dubs them “heptapods.” Linguistics isn’t really his thing, but he’s happy to quote Louise’s book back at her: “Language is the foundation of civilization,” he reads. “It is the first weapon.”
She’s right. The words we use define our arguments before we even make them — the difference between saying “pro-life” or “anti-choice.” Pay attention to a person’s words and you can get inside their head. You can’t truly have a conversation until you’re fluent in each other’s language — even if you’re both speaking English.
Adams’s clear-eyed, open-minded doctor forces us to ask how much we’re willing to communicate. Learning Heptapodese seems easy compared to the tough talks Americans need to have with each other. Today, Arrival’s message is louder without the film changing a frame — it’s taken on a double meaning, the test of a homonym and a work of art. Villeneuve captured the feelings of today before we even felt them: that ominous quiet, that sense that the rules have changed, that haunting image of a scared civilian clutching a sign that reads, “Save our species.”