Early on in Arrival, linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is having a phone conversation with her mother. Discussing the appearance of 12 oblong alien ships on Earth, the subject of media coverage comes up, with Louise scolding her mother for watching “that channel, [because] they’re full of idiots.” It’s a throwaway moment, since we never see “that channel.” In fact, media coverage of first contact is staid, never more than a convenient infodump. None of the embellishments, half-truths, or manipulation of the 24/7 cable news cycle are on display.
This portrayal undercuts Arrival‘s central tension: Louise–flown out to a Montana landing site to help the army translate the cephalopodic aliens’ language (rendered as a series of inky, circular alphabet sentences, where the beginning and end unfold simultaneously)–has to function as the sane intermediary between unknowable things and a trigger-happy military-industrial complex ready for Independence Day 3. Her only trustworthy ally a socially-graceless physicist (Jeremy Renner), who nonetheless slots himself in as a useful extension of her efforts at understanding the visitors (he’s also key to a side-story involving flashes of Louise’s deceased daughter, interspersed with the narrative in ways which question causality).
While the conflict is ever-present in the faces of a pragmatic colonel (Forrest Whitaker), a grubby CIA spook, and a paranoid grunt leading an insurgency, it never becomes all-consuming. Much of it isn’t even driven by Louise’s handlers, but rather a Chinese general who exists (up until the last half-hour) as a television apparition. Our media and military simply observe and react to foreign aggression. In adapting Ted Chiang’s novella “Story of Your Life,” Denis Villeneuve takes an about face from his previous films (Prisoners and Enemy were parables of the modern condition, while Sicario illustrates the meat-grinder of the War on Drugs), suggesting the empire works as advertised. This isn’t to say there aren’t problems–Villeneuve builds many of his scenes either on slow-burning tension over stark landscapes (the reveal of the ship in a swooping helicopter shot, drinking in mist rolling off the mountains well before any visual effects are shown) or Louise’s uncertainty (Adams balances between reflective pauses and rock-steady poise when dealing with the aliens or the army)–merely the threat they pose aren’t structural. America is already great, and will only get greater so long as we ignore the idiots. This false note mars an otherwise excellent meditation on humanity’s limitations when perceiving time, the universe, and alien intelligence.