Arrival (2016)

Dir. Denis Villeneuve. Starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker

Amy Adams’ star image is like a braid. One strand is defined by Enchanted, but also includes Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, Junebug, Catch Me if You Can, Julie and Julia, and The Muppets. Adams is, for my money, the most beautiful redheaded actress since Deborah Kerr, and these movies (mostly comedies) rely on her looks and her ability to personify sweetness and light. They also tend to leave the viewer with a surprising toothache; despite the bad things that happen to Adams’ characters in Junebug and Catch Me if You Can, I would be hard-pressed to make a movie marathon of the films in the Enchanted side of the bracket; on the whole, it would be like watching Alison Brie’s “Teachy Baby Understandy Chwiss-mas” song on repeat for hours, but with significantly fewer winks. Simply, Adams in those films is underutilized more often than not; it’s a shell of what she’s capable of. A second strand is far, far in the opposite direction; exemplified by The Fighter (or American Hustle, I guess, because I have an easier time telling goldfish apart than David O. Russell movies), Adams goes needlessly gritty. She fakes an accent, or gets in way over her head, or otherwise is tossed into a drama that devolves rapidly into histrionics. Again, she is underutilized in a role that’s showoffish to no particularly interesting end. (I haven’t seen Nocturnal Animals yet, but I’m very afraid that’s an entry on this front.)

Then there’s that middle strand, one which I think is Adams’ niche and the strand she hits brilliantly in Arrival. Not long after Enchanted, maybe even concurrently, it’s fair to say that she started playing smart women harried by external forces. She has a bit part in Charlie Wilson’s War playing Tom Hanks’ calendar. In Sunshine Cleaning she is brittle but nobody’s fool. And then there’s the chronological trio of Adams movies which, I think, make it perfectly clear that this competent but stressed adult is where her best work lies: Doubt, Big Eyes, and Arrival. In all three, she has brains to spare; in all three, she is oppressed by a force outside herself and has to wrest herself free. In Doubt, despite Sister James’ naivete and the bullying she takes from Sister Aloysius, she is the character who, by film’s end, has best adapted herself to balancing suspicion with belief. In Big Eyes, Margaret’s gift for captivating others with her art has to beat itself free of her husband’s abusive machinations. In Arrival, which I find to be Adams’ best performance, it’s not someone else who places limits on Louise’s intelligence; Louise, we come to realize, has been fighting her own mind for the entire length of the movie.

Arrival is a member of another chronological trio; in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Contact, and Arrival, interaction with aliens who clearly come in peace is marked by a great difficulty in communicating with them. Richard Dreyfuss, Jodie Foster, and Amy Adams each face adversity from an American government which is skeptical of their idealism and fearful of a power greater than its own, and despite those setbacks, each of them (individually, anyway) make peace with the aliens. I’ve been on this ground before, and I don’t want to rehash something I’ve already written. But what makes Arrival special is that it takes the linguistic barrier – the should-be impenetrable linguistic barrier – between two separate species from different parts of the galaxy and plays it out. In Close Encounters, communication between humans and aliens is most like St. John’s revelation – Roy can’t explain why he connects Devil’s Tower to the aliens and his wife can’t. In Contact, the question of communication is one-sided; only Ellie Arroway gets to talk with the Vegans after hours of receiving instructions from them. Arrival is a two-way street within twenty-some minutes. We aren’t left in suspense about who the aliens are, or what they’ll look like. The heptapods, as they’re called, are meant to be seen. Their logographic language is decoded slowly and surely, while Louise, who seems equally familiar with Portuguese, Farsi, and Chinese, goes on a deep dive with the heptapods regarding human syntax. In reference to the high bar that Arrival clears, it’s hard to watch Close Encounters or Contact and read them as really serious stories about communication.

This is not to say that Arrival is perfectly arranged. Like Vonnegut’s Tralfamadorians (and I have no idea how the creative team for this movie got away with it), the heptapods have a very different conception of time than humans have; to be clear, the heptapods think outside of time. While time still has linear elements for them (they came to Earth to help humans because they will need humans’ help in three millennia), they don’t live moment to moment in linear time. Their logograms, Louise figures out, are written outside of a tense. Her epiphany late in the film – learning the language fluently allows a person, specifically her, to step out of linear time and see all events concurrently – is a little messy. But Adams manages to sell it, even if the drama in the moment feels uncharacteristically forced. For most of the film, her eyes, though wide open, seem not to shine. In those late sequences, where she singlehandedly manages to avert a catastrophic worldwide attack on the alien ships, the life sneaks back into them as she moves faster and talks louder than ever.

For most of the film, one hypothesizes that the deadening in her mien is a result of a daughter who died of cancer in her teen years. The twist is that, during the events of the film, she has no daughter; Hannah is born after Louise solves the mystery of the heptapod language, and is in fact the daughter of the physicist, Ian (Renner), who Louise partnered with to further human understanding of the heptapods. In a movie that goes out of its way to connect multiple strands, Arrival in fact leaves open something of a mystery; if Louise isn’t grieving her daughter, then why does such a successful woman look so disheartened all the time? Adams creates a character whose loneliness, in retrospect, is palpable. She seems distant from her students, has an awkward relationship with her mother, has no romantic partner, does not appear to have any friendly connections with colleagues. And yet after saving the world, such as it is, Louise is alone again. Her daughter is dead. Ian divorces her; it turns out that, with this double-edged sword of a gift from the heptapods, she knows that her daughter will die long before she actually does, and that knowledge drives Ian away.

Louise is cursed, essentially, and Adams plays her as a woman with a bad fate. Being unable to know the future is stressful, but to know the future and be unable to change it is somehow worse. Throughout the film, Louise has the bearing of someone who has simply seen too much, who has tasted the fruit of that famous tree. Somehow, Adams gives a convincing performance of a woman who knows that her daughter will die in a hospital bed before she is even conceived. No doubt Arrival will someday be eclipsed as a sci-fi vehicle about language, but one wonders if any other movie will displace this one as Amy Adams’ best work.

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