Arrival (2016): Amy Adams Rich Role, Great Performance

In the sci-fi Arrival, Amy Adams plays the lead role, Dr. Louise Banks.  As a star vehicle, it is a much better one than Sicarrio was for Emily Blunt.

“The story of Arrival is about Louise Banks, a linguist working at a university in the northeast United States,” says director Denis Villeneuve. “She has been hired by the US government to go inside one of those spaceships to get in contact with the aliens and to try to translate and understand the purpose of their visit. It’s about a relationship with another civilization.”

“We are introduced to Louise’s character through her daughter, which is one of my favorite parts of the movie,” says Villeneuve. “Adams brought a lot of humanity, profoundness and a beautiful vulnerability to her character, a melancholia that I was looking for. We see a woman who is going through a mourning process, having lost her daughter. You feel that she’s someone who has nothing to lose. It’s very beautiful to see, sad and at the same time beautiful. She has nothing to lose so she’s ready for this adventure.”

Child Loss

The loss of Hannah, Louise’s daughter, is central to understanding who Louise is and it’s a pivotal part of the story—in fact the story is told as if Louise is telling Hannah the story of her life. “Hannah is Louise’s daughter and she is very special to Louise,” explains Adams. “When the audience first meets Louise she is dealing with the loss of her daughter, so that’s what’s going on with her when the audience first meets her—dealing with the love and the loss, and what that is.”  “She’s an intellectual, living in a university, that has nothing and is not equipped to be in contact with people coming from another planet,” explains Villeneuve. “She’s clueless but she goes there with a lot of courage. She’s a very courageous character, ready to put her own life in danger because she feels that there’s something more beautiful, more profound, that she can be in relationship with.”

“The story is about many different things, one of them is what’s known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which is the idea that the language you speak determines how you perceive the world and even what kinds of thoughts you can have,” explains Chiang. “The protagonist of the story is a linguist who gradually learns an alien language, and it changes the way she understands her life.”  “It’s the process that was so fascinating about the short story, script and movie,” explains Levine. “Hopefully, there will be the sense of her absorbing this language. The Sapir-Whorf theory is that if you start learning a language, you’ll start to dream and thin in it. We learn midway through the movie that they write, simultaneously, a sentence with both hands. They know the end of the sentence while writing the beginning. While Louise is trying to write this way, the synapses in her brain start to connect with it and the way she’s thinking. The better she gets at the language, the more her thoughts become jumbled. She starts to have, not psychotic breaks, but vivid flashbacks to her past. Why is this language pulling these memories of this lost child back to her?”

To prepare for the role, and to understand what a linguist actually does, Adams conducted extensive research: “I met with a linguist and realized it’s impossible to learn everything a linguist knows.”  Adams says that there’s a reason why it involves a lot of study. She learned that being a linguist is very different to being a translator. “The thing that helped me and freed me is that there are different types of linguistics. The linguist I spoke to only speaks two languages so that freed me up.”  “Though my character speaks a couple of languages,” continues Adams, “she studies the anthropological significance of language and culture, how people speak to one another, and how languages originate. I did a lot of reading, and realized I wouldn’t be a good linguist, but I found it fascinating and really enjoyed that aspect. I didn’t really understand, from a sociological point of view, what linguists did and what linguistics was, so that was really fun to learn. I now understand much better how she was able to then decipher a language.”  Though deciphering an alien language involves far more than any human language. No matter how differently human tribes think and communicate, it’s not nearly as big a difference as how an entirely different species from a different planet would communicate. Or what relationship an alien peoples’ written and spoken languages would have with each other.  “Louise understands that there is no relationship between the way that the aliens are talking and what they are writing on the board,” explains Villeneuve. “Her experience [means that] after several sessions she realizes there’s no relationship between them. She’s focused on the writing process, because the way they talk is impossible for her to decode.”

Villeneuve thinks there’s also another type of communication going on between Louise and the aliens. “She’s helped in a telepathic way by the aliens to try to be able to understand,” explains the director, “because she has been chosen. The linguists that go inside the ships are in relationships with the aliens, and the ones that are open, the aliens are influencing them and helping them to catch the first glimpse, the first key how to decode that language. There are patterns in the writing and, like with any language. they are trying to find those patterns and making a lot of mistakes. Actually, [some of] the drama of the movie comes from one of those mistakes.”

Adams found that the experience gave her more insight into the world around her and changed the way she thinks about communication. She also learned from watching her own daughter. “I do think about language and how it informs society,” says Adams. “Watching my daughter and other kids—I’ve brought her to several different countries now for work—who cannot speak the same language but who end up communicating, figuring out what words they have in common naturally, you start to learn that communication and language are based on so much more than the words we speak. I started seeing it from that point of view and that was cool.”