Director: Denis Villeneuve
Writer: Eric Heisserer
Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker
Arrival bucks the trend of what most people expect an alien film to be. Extra-terrestrials appear on Earth, but aren’t concerned with invading for the purpose of violently conquering the world. We don’t really learn where they came from, or how they got here. They simply are there until they aren’t. But Arrival is intriguing nonetheless.
Unlike some science-fiction movies that focus on the spectacle of knowing that we are no longer alone in the universe, director Denis Villeneuve pivots away from the stars and focuses on Earth.
Arrival is both a soulful and thoughtful film that looks at the differences between people and how they perceive the world. Ultimately, Villeneuve proposes that the biggest threat to humanity is not what will come from up high, but from the communication barriers and ideological differences between nations. Considering that this film “arrives” shortly after this recent election, maybe this is perfectly timed.
Amy Adams plays Dr Louise Banks, a linguist professor who is tasked with decrypting the whale-like language of the aliens that have ominously appeared across the globe. Alongside theoretical physicist, Ian Donnelly (Renner), they try to inch ever closer to the intentions of whatever lies behind the aquarium of fog. As she digs deeper into the mind-set and language of the “Hyptopods”, she begins to examine her own life and whether her decisions actually play a part in the outcome.
In such a grand role, this is perhaps Amy’s most intimate portrayal. There is a sense of melancholy that hangs over her from the start due to a beautifully shot montage, but there is also a sense of immense hope. It is a role that expresses pain but paradoxically, happiness and determination.
Structurally, the film follows a non-conventional approach. Like the way the Hyptopods write, it follows a centre-embedded structure. Snippets focussing on Louise’s family fit snugly between her tests with the aliens in the same way you’d might place a dash in a sentence to give an aside. While it may initially seem to be random splatters of flashbacks, they contribute to the overall idea of the moment at hand. The short story, Stories of Your life by Ted Chiang – the basis of the script – used this structure as well, but it was far more compact in scope. Considering that the source material lasted roughly 20 pages, Arrival gets to stew on some of the concepts and expand them a little bit more over its 2 hour run time; broadening the narrative to include numerous countries and how they react to the landing implications. The only issue that I had with the plot is that even though I’d say it was sure footed in its pacing, near the end it sort of stumbles over the finish line and doesn’t quite sell the conclusion as well it could have intended.
Technically, the film is stunning. Now frequent collaborator, Jóhann Jóhannsson, contributes another frosty score to set the tone but a lot of praise should be given to the cinematographer, Bradford Young. In the beginning as they swoop towards the towering spacecraft cloaked in enveloping fog, the camera slowly arcs around – holding the shot a little bit longer to sell the scale of what is before us; glorious.
They also have a tendency to film Louise from behind, swooping close behind her, shielding us from whatever lies ahead or closing in whenever they can to Adam’s expressive face, analysing any emotive twitches that might clue us in to what she might be thinking.
Arrival is the kind of film that leaves you speechless with the twists that it creates but makes you want to speak to about it to any friend or stranger that is willing to listen afterwards. It might not quench a thirst for action packed thrills but it is quietly spectacular throughout and a film that was always there at the back of my mind, days after.