Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival couldn’t have been released at more fitting time in this writer’s life. As an any-moment-now expectant father, my every thought is fixated on the joy and responsibility that is to come my way, and all the nervous anxiety and self doubt in between.
Surely, my objectivity has been tainted and you need to be aware of this before reading any further.
Arrival is equal parts Spielberg and Kubrick. It’s a meditative exploration of humanity’s response to first contact. On the surface it’s a typical science fiction story, with clear nods to Close Encounters of the Third Kind and how we might communicate with extra-terrestrial visitors. It’s also a profoundly esoteric feature where the sudden appearance of mysterious shapes across the globe forces mankind to question their place and purpose in the universe; there’s your 2001 reference.
We’ve seen alien contact/invasion stories told, retold and remixed hundreds of time before, but director Denis Villeneuve and writer Eric Heisserer have devised something far more profound and deeply affecting than your average genre flick.
We follow Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams – destined for serious awards talk), a grief-stricken linguistics professor, who is called upon to decode the sounds and signs from a duo of ink-squirting aliens, that we’ve dubbed as, “hetapods”. She’s surrounded by Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker and Michael Stuhlbarg, but everything centres on Adams’ character and performance, and for good reason.
Doing so allows the film to stay simple and focused. Only briefly are we shown television screens broadcasting glimpses of the wider global panic that threatens to devolve and destroy society. The vast majority of the audience’s time is spent curiously peering over the shoulder of Louise as she tries desperately to communicate with, and understand the intentions of these strange new beings.
Arrival invites audiences with its thoroughly engaging premise and intellectual deliberations, but where the film resonates, is during the haunting tableaux that break up the action. Louise’s search for answers are intermittently broken up by some beautifully shot, Terrence Malick-inspired flashbacks. Each moment of time, is stripped back to an almost silent sound design with only a glimmer of Jóhann Jóhannsson’s otherworldly score left behind. Each fragment of time harrows with pain and joy and provides the film the urgency and intimacy it needs to connect us with the magnificent.
While Arrival presents a somewhat optimistic view of how our world may one day be able to set aside our differences, the power of the filmmaking comes from Amy Adams’ ability to encapsulate grief, isolation, hope and strength with believability and fearlessness. Louise is an excellent protagonist, whose brilliance and vulnerabilities aren’t explained away by exposition.
The linguistics and alien interaction sequences are fascinating, but the heartbreaking emotional journey and the magnitude of the life-altering decisions that Louise must make is ultimately what separates this film from its ilk. When the film neatly blends the science fiction tropes with the rawness of genuine human emotion, the results are overwhelmingly moving.
(Again, my own personal journey may slant the magnitude of my reaction here.)
Arrival is a film that often mesmerises with its melancholic beauty, to the point where I’m certain I’ve missed crucial subtext. To that point, I would strongly argue that it cannot be adequately assessed by a single viewing, with so much depth hiding both in plain sight, and underneath its exquisite arthouse framing and imagery.
With his latest effort, Villeneuve has earned his place upon the upper echelons of modern filmmakers. Arrival is a cerebral text that will reward patient, open-minded viewers and students of cinema for decades to come.