A palindromic tour de force, Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival is a real film lover’s film. A product of deep emotional and intellectual beauty, loaded with provocative philosophical treatises, smart symbolism and crafty red herrings, Arrival’s rich palette of heady questions and satisfying answers make for a movie-going experience that will surely dwell on long after the film reaches its sock-knocking, bittersweet conclusion. Cast doubt aside. Villeneuve, after four English-language films, manages to maintain his unfathomable winning streak and appears to only continue to sharpen his craft as a storyteller and visual artist.
The emotional center of Arrival is Amy Adam’s Dr. Louise Banks. A celebrated linguist, Banks is recruited by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker with a Bronx accent) when a dozen towering alien space crafts land on Earth and attempt to communicate with the human race. Problems arise. Joined by physicist Ian Donnelly (a very good Jeremy Renner), Louise attempts to build a platform of mutual language with the seemingly benevolent beings. The barriers to breaking down the metaphorical Towers of Babel are many and the 12 apparently random countries around the world work together, and then in isolation, to crack the code. And so begins a new-age space race to answer the burning question, “What is your purpose on Earth?”
In part a response to Stanley Kubrick’s heady masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey and equally a dissection of current world politics, Arrival is Villeneuve’s most emotionally charged and visually curious film to date. As Kubrick toyed with notions of time, identity and consciousness so too does Villeneuve examine the very fabric of our interpretative skills. “What is communication but they key to unlocking a mutual basis for understanding?” Arrival poses. In an election year, the question seems as poignant as ever. Louise is a tender, near broken character, one suffering the loss of her daughter, and her grief in part informs her approach to language and motivates her quest for a multi-universal Rosetta Stone.
The sly script from Eric Heisserer is both measured and bustling, splicing Louise’s varied attempts to bridge the language gap with her own familial experience of teaching her daughter various words. In doing such, Heisserer messes with traditional linear storytelling in untraditional manner, the audience not necessarily the wiser as to which piece goes where. The sleight of hand is questionable until it all comes together. Then, it is wowing. From a visual standpoint, Arrival also wows. Villeneuve impresses an epic scale upon the aesthetic footprint of Arrival, tugging back the camera to reveal sweeping planes assaulted by dreamlike cloud banks. Within, the 1500-foot skipping stone of a UFO hovers. Even the minimalist design of Arrival’s space crafts resemble Kubrick’s iconic monolith in what is surely a tip of the hat to the late great director.
Jóhann Jóhannsson‘s masterful score is the sonic aggressor that ties it all together. His triumphant trumpeting is a sensitive and unsettling brew, the crossroads between his doomy, apocalypse-conjuring Sicario work and the hopeful choral rises and falls of Theory of Everything. Alongside Andy Hull and Robert McDowell’s vocalization-heavy work in Swiss Army Man, Jóhannsson’s offering stands out as one of the absolute bests of the year. The cement that holds tight Arrival’s fierce emotional and intellectual curiosities.
And like Her and Ex Machina before it, Arrival is not so interested in the shoot ‘em up, bash ‘em down side of sci-fi. Rather, it chases very real world tenets. Global cooperation. Arms races. Zero sum games. The ideological dogmas that drive our disparate cultures – with capitalism championing personal gains, socialism heralding the needs of the many over those of the few, etc. – dictate the varied responses to this alien presence on Earth. For a film about invented Heptapods and giant space stones, it is unsettling how real Earth’s approach to their arrival is and the impending doomsday that we see brimming but cannot for the life of us prevent.
Through it all, Adams delivers a searing performance that deserves awards consideration come year’s end. Her role is not showy nor is it loaded with the bromides of Oscar-worthy moments. But the emotional honesty stretched upon her face in any given scene, her utterly mesmerizing internal transformation and her soft-spoken but fiercely committed characterization make for one of the more interesting females leads to grace the screen in 2016. Which is all the better in the context of Sicario which, despite Emily Blunt’s strong performance, encountered trouble succumbing to patriarchal pressures. Renner also serves as an excellent co-star, lending humility, passion and kindness to his Ian in spades.
One element of Arrival that still has me scratching my head involves the classic time travel conundrum and for those who’ve not seen the film, I would advise skipping past this part. Like pretty much any film that involves time travel or an element of time travel, Arrival has trouble justifying contradictory elements. Specifically, the communication barrier should not be an issue for a species that is able to freely manipulate time – for whom time is a flat circle as it were. Seeing that they are able to reach hundreds, thousands, millions of years into the past or future, how is it that they do not already possess the ability to communicate with human beings, seeing that they do eventually acquire that skill? It’s a concern that one can overlook if needed but also a massive logic flaw if one that can be largely ignored if we give precedence to the emotional import of Arrival rather than its logical counterpart.
There has been lingering doubt since the announcement of a long-belated Blade Runner sequel, which Villeneuve is now attached to direct, but if Arrival serves as anything outside of being a great film in and of itself, it’s that the man can hammer out sci-fi with the best of them. Because at the center of every great science fiction film is the juxtaposition of language and visual language and this Canadian-born director has the know-how to marry the two into engaging, thought-provoking cinema that prods the heart and stimulates the mind.
CONCLUSION: Minor quibbles aside, ‘Arrival’ is heady, bold, emotionally decadent and fearless. It’s science fiction for film lovers lead by an excellent turn from Amy Adams and emboldened by Jóhann Jóhannsson’s unforgettable score and Denis Villeneuve’s moody aesthetics.