I couldn’t wait to see Amy Adams talk to extraterrestrials in Arrival. Who else could make such a good first impression for us? The American president who evidently stills holds office in the movie—and is excoriated by talk-radio bullies for not declaring all-out war on space travelers—would certainly be a first-rate spokesperson for earthlings, but he’ll soon be unavailable. And America’s actual president-elect? I don’t think he’d be the best choice in a situation that demands tact. The obscurity of purpose of our otherworldly visitors and the unfathomability of their minds would best be met by someone who’s a human light source. Send Amy Adams to shine at them.
There’s a climactic scene in Arrival in which Adams, as the linguist Louise Banks, stands in the immediate presence of an unimaginable being, with the floating red tendrils of her hair and marine blue of her eyes the only areas of strong color in a visual field transformed by cinematographer Bradford Young into an ophthalmologic aura, such as you see when your pupils have been dilated; and though the billows of light on-screen may cloak the alien, it’s the unclouded surface of Adams’s face that spreads the glow. Write off the effect, if you like, to mere cinematic technique combined with cultural prejudice, which sees in Adams’s physiognomy a storybook princess or well-scrubbed hometown girl. You’d still need to account for the surplus of illumination—candor and intelligence made visible—that Adams can project the way Aroldis Chapman pitches fastballs. Her professional capability saves this scene from being just another episode of sci-fi transcendence. Her force of personality makes you proud to see the hand-lettered sign she holds up, earlier in the movie, to identify herself: “Human.”
Adams is directed in Arrival by the Quebecois filmmaker Denis Villeneuve, who has previously alternated between artfully brutal suspense pictures (Prisoners, Sicario) and narrative conundrums (Enemy). Here he works in both modes at once, giving a bang-up staging to the military and popular response to the alien landing (high alert, total panic) while also evoking the increasingly odd psychological effect of the visitors on Dr. Banks. She already appears to be drifting emotionally at the start of the movie, holed up alone in a tasteful waterfront house (nice woodwork, picture windows, and wine glasses) and brooding over dreamy, discontinuous scenes of the life and death of her daughter. Banks’s inner state becomes even more unsettled, understandably, when the US Army shows up in the form of Forest Whitaker and whisks her away in a helicopter to an impromptu base in Montana, where she’s expected to interpret the rumbles, booms, and crackles that presumably serve as speech among the recently landed aliens.
A conventional theme of humanism versus hard science labors into the film during this sequence, announced loudly through a rivalry between Banks and a new colleague, Ian Donnelly; and because this physicist is played by the studly Jeremy Renner, the extraprofessional destination of the characters’ sentiments is also thuddingly obvious. These stumbles are the exceptions, though, in a picture that usually moves lightly and with refreshing subtlety. Villeneuve uses only a few economical strokes to establish the mood after the extraterrestrials appear: the sound of unseen fighter jets roaring across the sky, while in an almost deserted parking lot, one car backs into another. Villeneuve is similarly understated in the setting he constructs for Banks once she reaches Montana: a labyrinth of low, narrow, dimly lit military tents, which looks realistic enough but also seems like the outward, visible sign of the heroine’s inner maze.