Arrival Is a Quiet Masterpiece
Denis Villeneuve’s latest is smart, hopeful, and intimately devastating science fiction.
Cinema is filled with movies that explore humankind’s first meeting with an alien species, but few of them take the time to explore the actual humanity occupying half of that equation. Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind and John Carpenter’s Starman touch on individuals, but it’s Robert Zemeckis’ Contact that uses an individual – Jodie Foster’s Dr. Ellie Arroway – to represent far more than just her own fears, desires, and thoughts. It’s part of what makes Contact one of the finest science fiction films ever made – and it’s part of what makes Denis Villeneuve’s latest film, Arrival, an even better one.
Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) has known loss after the death of her daughter from an incurable disease, but life goes on as she keeps busy teaching language and linguistics. One morning finds her class sparsely attended and distracted, and she quickly discovers why. Twelve alien spaceships have come to rest – more precisely, they’re floating mere feet off the ground – at a dozen different locations around the globe including a lush, remote vista in Montana. An American colonel (Forest Whitaker, solid despite an odd accent choice) who’s had past translation experience with Louise requests her assistance in communicating with the beings inside, and she soon finds herself en route to the site alongside a mathematician named Ian Donnelly (a warm, witty, perfectly underused Jeremy Renner).
The process is a slow one, despite prodding by the military and other government representatives (including a CIA agent played by Michael Stuhlbarg), as Louise works step by step to build a visual language with the large, Lovecraftian creatures. Pressure grows as populations here and abroad, including certain countries with itchy trigger fingers, grow fearful as to the aliens’ intentions on Earth. The answers will have ramifications beyond anyone’s expectations.
Villeneuve’s films have often been described as clinical in their feel and execution, both as compliment and criticism, as the dramatic action he offers is frequently presented with more of an eye for precision than a heart for warmth, and Arrival feels destined to garner similar praise/accusation. There is a detached nature early on to our guide, Louise, as she first learns of the aliens’ appearance, but it seems clear that she’s a woman weighed down by a heavy loss. The challenge of communicating with the aliens not only moves her forward but also ties together the threads of her memories, Earth’s fate, and the complexities of human emotion.
It’s a delicately engaging balancing act as Eric Heisserer’s screenplay (based on a story by Ted Chiang) gives viewers pieces of a whole they’re not even aware is coming. As with Contact, and sadly the real world in general, the efforts of the many come under threat from the actions of the few, and these outside dangers continually serve to bump up an already ticking clock. Suspense and energy are built on scenes of sentence diagramming (that may leave you wishing Adams had been your English teacher back in grade school) and attempts to structure questions out of strange, alien images, leaving the film free of studio-deigned contrivances designed to ensure mass appeal and acceptance.
Any perceived coldness in Villeneuve’s approach is challenged by cinematographer Bradford Young’s gorgeous photography capturing even the familiar with an expectant luminescence and Joe Walker’s editing that keeps perfectly apace with the script’s intentions and reveals. This is a film where suspense and drama comes not from explosive action – though there is that too – but from the quiet grace of pieces falling into place before our eyes. It refuses to spoon-feed viewers and instead gives us the information before slowly, methodically, brilliantly bringing it all together in a sequence of pure electrified beauty almost guaranteed to raise the hair on your arms.
Arrival won’t work for everyone as it refuses to cater to certain desires, and instead it sits comfortably in the company of Zemeckis’ film and James Cameron’s The Abyss in regard to which moments of awe it rewards. Like the best science fiction the film uses a “what if” scenario to turn the lens inward towards humanity itself to focus on our beauty and ugliness alike. It finds hope, but it’s not without cost.
More alien intervention than invasion, Arrival is an exploration of language and communication – both a how-to and a treatise on its importance – that takes an early hold of both your heart and mind. It’s only when the end credits appear that you realize just how tight of a grip it’s had on both.
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