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Piecing Together the Puzzle of ‘Arrival’

Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi epic avoids the genre’s usual traps

Paramount/Ringer illustration
Paramount/Ringer illustration

When you think about it, it’s always been a bit presumptuous of humans to imagine that an alien race would actually warp across untold galaxies to come F with us. Wouldn’t we just love it if, upon discovering humanity, aliens would feel inclined to drop by and say hello, swirling patterns into our crops and making accidental club bangers out of rhythmic satellite signals? File all of the above under Aliens Taking an Interest. Never mind the even bigger presumption embedded in these types of stories: that we would know what was happening to begin with, would be able to identify the circles and bleep-bloops and unusual weather patterns as manifestations of another life form. Or even further: that we’d be able to talk back.

That’s the thread taken up by Denis Villeneuve’s new movie, Arrival, which opens with 12 huge space wafers descending upon Earth and looming above us with ominous stillness. Amy Adams plays a linguistics professor turned unlikely alien whisperer, hired to understand who it is we’re dealing with by first learning to communicate with whomever that is. What humanity’s survival will come down to, in the end, is her learning to communicate in the language.

Maybe that sounds a little too easy — the pilgrims and the earth natives setting aside their ray guns to peacefully kiki for the sake of intergalactic order. ’Tis the season, however: Arrival is this fall’s designated serious genre release. It is a star-studded sci-fi tentpole with Big Themes, “the kind of movie they don’t make anymore,” except, as the film historian Mark Harris confirmed for The Ringer two weeks ago, this type of fancy sci-fi film is still a regular, if not common, line in studio ledgers. Past years confirm it. There was Gravity, then The Martian; there’s the work of Christopher Nolan, in particular, who has dazzled audiences again and again with his conceptually knotty popcorn movies.

Since 2001’s Memento, Nolan has been the vanguard of what we may as well call puzzle films, because that’s what they feel like: problems you solve as you watch. Villeneuve is a newcomer to this art; his notable previous features, last year’s Sicario and 2013’s Prisoners, are gothic procedurals, stark but nonetheless glossy accounts of good souls turned rotten in the pursuit of justice. Arrival is Villeneuve’s first step in Nolan’s direction — not in subject, or even style, but in purpose. The movie is based on acclaimed sci-fi writer Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life,” a work of short fiction published in 1998. In typical Chiang fashion, “Story of Your Life” is equal parts earnestness and cerebral reflection, lending itself pretty readily to a film that fashions a woman’s mind and emotions into a puzzle for the sake of a concept. That’s the difference between puzzle movies and mysteries: The problems presented by mysteries are solved within the movies, and the problems presented by puzzles are the movies themselves.

The star of Arrival ought to be the mind of Adams’s character, Louise Banks: Her inner life is our way into the story. But Arrival has all the makings of a puzzle film, which means it’s subject to the genre’s risks: relegating the characters into mere cyphers, or allowing an overly complex structure to obscure a lack of substance. When the curtain gets pulled back, and the wizard — Louise’s mind — is revealed, the film runs the risk of falling into a trap inherent to the genre: making the filmmaker’s genius the real subject of the movie.

Leonard, the hero of Nolan’s Memento, gets accused of willfully losing himself in a game of his own design. He does it to create a puzzle he can never solve.

For a while it seemed almost mandatory for puzzle movies to be peppered with existentialism-lite theses like this, at least in the Nolan brother universe. Jonathan Nolan, Christopher’s brother and collaborator, wrote the story that inspired Memento and is one of the showrunners of HBO’s puzzly TV parable Westworld. But it’s bigger than the Nolans. David Fincher (The Game) and Darren Aronofsky (The Fountain) are significant contemporaries, and some might include within the puzzle genre films like Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, with its remarkable parallels to both Inception and Memento, and even the nightmarishly indecipherable work of David Lynch.

The Nolans, though, are the genre’s torchbearers. They write dialogue that reads like artists’ statements: “A real magician,” per Christian Bale in Nolan’s The Prestige, “tries to invent something new that other magicians are going to scratch their heads over.” Directors are magicians: got it. And the Nolans’ clever conceits, the labyrinths they create to flay their characters’ inner worlds open, are the essence of their magic. It’s fair to wonder whether the convolutions of Inception or Westworld actually crowd out the psychological richness of each. Inception imagines the emotional landscape of its hero as a literal landscape, an entire architecture with folding, moving parts. Falling through the many layers of topsy-turvy dreamscape feels like peeling back the layers of his mind bit by bit. Whether the innermost layer of that mind turns out to be worthwhile is up to you, but either way, we don’t like to jump down the rabbit hole for nothing. At best, the catharsis of the puzzle being worked out is twofold: solving the movie is solving the character.

Arrival has a different problem: Emotional richness isn’t missing — this is a moving, thoughtful film — but some of the specifics of who Louise is, beyond the strict needs of the plot, might be. And that potentially undermines the movie. When Louise first meets the aliens (called “heptapods” for the seven thick trunks dangling from bodies that look like the head of Cthulhu), she’s joined by Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a theoretical physicist. These are the two people chosen to solve the problem of alien communication — and they solve it in a few months. They first do so in hesitant encounters with the heptapods in which they establish the basics — Hi, I’m Louise, and you’re an alien — and next by learning and classifying their language, communicating through a glass barrier that the heptapods use like a dry-erase board for their alien ink.

Louise understands them (she and Ian call their heptapods Abbott and Costello). She is intuitive and perceptive, with a mind that makes inferences about the heptapods’ culture through their language. They write in logograms — symbols that stand in for words — that have no beginning or end, implying that they think through ideas circularly, which offers a lesson on how the heptapods perceive of time itself.

Time is what makes Arrival feel like a puzzle. The film is rife with ostensible flashbacks (it’s complicated), charactered with people we haven’t met, and bolstered with smaller mysteries (just how does Louise crack an alien language so quickly?) that suggest something is awry. For all their sometimes labyrinthine confusion, puzzles are generally pointed inward: the inner life of the character gets externalized as the physical world of the movie, with messy worlds implying messy heroes. All roads in Arrival point toward her, toward her inner life as a thinking, feeling, intuitive human being.

There’s ultimately nothing we learn about Louise that isn’t a means to an end for the puzzle — and that’s a severe limitation on the genre, not just this movie. But Arrival’s unique success is that Louise winds up mattering most: not in our sense of the movie as a puzzle, nor in our sense of the director. A minor breakthrough, maybe, but proof positive that this is a major movie.