Amy Adams’ performance in “Arrival” is out of this world, but the film’s antiquated gender ideals are less than alien.
In the new military space thriller “Arrival,” Adams delivers a stunning portrayal of Louise Banks, a linguist employed by the military to translate alien language. Banks’ own unraveling – offset by recurrent flashbacks of her mystery daughter, Hannah, – is surprisingly generic. The film chooses to focus on outdated ideals of domesticity over the genre’s established themes of scientific pursuit, communication and humanity.
Before any of the film’s action can transpire, the aliens – called Heptapods in English – first have to arrive to Earth. This happens almost immediately in the film, when the sullen, foreboding nature of Banks’ voiceover introduces the breach of Earth by a UFO.
Dour military officials approach Banks’ Montana-bound institution and grow frustrated when she can’t translate the creatures’ incoherent growls on an outdated tape recorder. When a colleague of Banks’ fails as well, the military brings Banks to the aliens’ site to try to use communication to prevent war.
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Adams expertly navigates the morose isolation that comes with a lack of family, never veering into melodrama. She delivers an effective portrayal of what it means to lose a family – particularly one she’s never known – while reorganizing her life into a chronological timeline. She speaks in Chinese to a foreign official whose wife is on her deathbed, the performance of which is so assured and seamless that one might think she’s fluent.
However, her turmoil ultimately stems not from the agonized brilliance around her work, but from the lack of family in her life, which is inconsistent with the feminism the character ostensibly embodies as the top linguist of her field.
Furthermore, Banks’ work employs language to establish connection, but the film rarely delves into just how this is done. Viewers are expected to understand Banks’ communication with the aliens without understanding it ourselves. An exception is when Banks gets the word “human” translated by aliens in bright orange space suits. The Heptapodial language in question, a series of not entirely closed circles in its written form, ties into the circular, nonlinear idea of time the movie introduces, but doesn’t actually explain what the Heptapods are saying.
The aliens’ idea of time is the most profound concept explored throughout the film, and ties Banks’ disconcerting memories together beautifully. Time, experienced by the Heptapods, doesn’t occur chronologically; when Banks starts engaging with the species, she begins having difficulty pinpointing significant events in her own life.
Time ensures peace between the imminently warring countries of the film. “Arrival” could have used time to explore ramifications for humanity and civilization, but instead, it’s used primarily on the microscopic level of Banks’ family dynamic.
The exploration itself isn’t necessarily bad; space and science-fiction films tend to resonate better with audiences when they prioritize relatable concepts like family. But when the film promises to arrive at a grander, greater revelation, it can’t afford to dally too much in the personal.
Despite its merits and praise, “Arrival” doesn’t comprehend that its female viewers may be stimulated by more than lost motherhood.