There’s so much to dig into when discussing the new film Arrival. The intricacies of the storytelling, the jarringly smart manipulation of the film narrative grammar, and the resonance of deeply moving themes are all worth topics, compelling pieces of evidence in the argument of the work’s special accomplishment. And yet the element of the film that made the strongest impression on me — that convinces me it is the linchpin that makes it all work — is the one that I suspect and worry will be overlooked by many, convinced that it is in service of a bigger picture rather than absolutely vital to its success. That element is the lead performance of Amy Adams.
An uncommonly heady slab of big screen science fiction, the latest from director Denis Villeneuve begins with a dozen alien spacecrafts arriving on planet Earth, hovering ominously above the landscape like gigantic Go tiles. The global authorities attempt to adjust to this mind-bending new reality, pulling together ad hoc teams of scientists, academics, and military and political leaders in an effort to bridge the considerable divide between humanity and the pilots of the visiting ships. Doing away with the typical narrative shortcut of aliens possessing remarkably versatile universal translators when they come calling, one of the most valuable members of the team assembled to interface with the craft in U.S. airspace is linguist Louise Banks (Adams).
After Spike Jonze directed Her, he spoke about what Adams brought to the project. “The thing I realized with Amy is, she can make any dialogue you write sound unwritten,” Jonze told The New York Times. “She just has a way of internalizing it. She’s such a thinker, and you can see her thinking her way through all of that until it’s all coming from within her.” In Jonze’s fanciful, near-future story about technology that’s taken a few important steps forward, bringing it to a point at which it’s almost indistinguishable from humanity, Adams was quietly invaluable. She instilled plausibility into the imaginative leaps, bringing a lived-in sureness to the interactions. She made the flightiest fiction solidly real.
That very quality is present throughout Arrival, keeping the film grounded even as it stirs the boundaries of expectations educated in cinematic storytelling. Eric Heisserer’s screenplay, adapted from a Ted Chiang short story, has an almost procedural march to it. Louise collaborates with her anxious and intense teammates, forming a particular bond with a theoretical physicist (Jeremy Renner). Villeneuve doesn’t rush the material, using admirable patience to provide a sense of how agonizingly slow the process of constructing a communication scheme with an alien species would be. He presses in on Adams, allowing her to convey the burden of her task and the revelatory thrill of breakthrough moments. As Jonze said, her thinking is evident, present, and powerful. There are many fine points that allow the film to escape familiar tropes in considering how such a visitation would rock society, and Adams underlines accuracy of those details with the firmness of her portrayal. She’s the conduit to the film’s reality.
Arrival carries bold revelations in its final act, calling on Adams to scrape her way to especially challenging emotional notes, if only because the layers of those moments are shuffled in entirely unique ways. In a reductive but accurate description, Arrival is about first contact with an alien species. The closing moments cement what has been apparent all along: the film is about the deeply personal far more than any crisscrossing encapsulation of the cosmos. It is science fiction as a pathway to humanity rather than an escape from it. It’s difficult to think of a modern actress better suited for carrying the film to its resonant places than Adams. She matches the film’s the most noble aspirations, finding something that is beautiful and true.