Arrival, the remarkable new film by Denis Villeneuve, begins aptly enough with an arrival—though perhaps not the kind you would expect. A baby is born, and her mother, played by Amy Adams, explains in voiceover, “I used to think to this was the beginning of your story.” We see the girl’s life, in flashback—games of cowboy, arguments, reconciliations—as her mother continues, “I remember moments in the middle ... and this was the end.” We see the girl, now a teenager, in a hospital bed. Then we see the bed empty.
The sequence—a brief life encompassed in still briefer summary—is surely among the most heartbreaking since Michael Giacchino’s magnificently versatile waltz carried us through the “Married Life” segment of Up. And while at first it appears to be mere backstory for Adams’s character, it is in fact much more, perhaps the most crucial thread in Villeneuve’s intricately woven film.
Adams plays Dr. Louise Banks, a world-class linguist whom the Army once asked for help with a Farsi translation. “You made quick work of those insurgent videos,” a Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) reminds her; “you made quick work of those insurgents,” she rebuts. The Army needs her help once again, although this time the work is decidedly more esoteric: Aliens have arrived on Earth in a dozen giant craft scattered across the globe, one of them in the wilds of Montana. Colonel Weber would like Louise to come with him, learn the aliens’ language, and ask them why they’re here. On the flight into Big Sky Country, she is introduced to her partner in this endeavor, a genial physicist named Ian Donelly (Jeremy Renner, looking relieved that no one expects him to lug around a bow and quiver).