It’s starting to become somewhat of a tradition in the Fall for a smart sci-fi movie to get a marque release. Over the past 3 years, we’ve had Gravity, Interstellar, and The Martian all proving to be huge hits with audiences and critics alike as the foliage starts to brown. This year, it seems, is the turn of Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival and with it, the promising Canadian director has delivered a masterclass in intelligent heartfelt storytelling with unerring accuracy from which the aforementioned films could have learned much.
It’s no exaggeration to say this year’s sci-fi showpiece is several lightyears ahead of those from recent times and will most likely soon be regarded amongst the best of the genre this century. And Arrival has achieved this by concentrating on one deceptively simple thing: language.
While most alien invasion/visitation films tend to focus on several principal characters experiencing the events from differing points of view, Villeneuve remains consistent with his earlier works (such as Prisoners and Sicario) by showing this story from a singular point of view. That focal point is Amy Adams’ linguistics professor, Dr. Louise Banks, who is whisked away from her classes by army Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) after huge shell-like ships descend upon 12 locations across the globe.
After a short helicopter trip reminiscent of Jurassic Park‘s equivalent journey as Louise intellectually spars with Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) scientist about the importance of their professions, we’re treated to Arrival‘s first jaw-dropping moment. The alien ship is revealed in a slowly pirouetting pan, blanketed in plumes of morning mist pouring off the surrounding mountains, in a serene scene loaded with portent and possible menace. It actually strangely evokes John Hurt descending into those fields of eggs in Alien -albeit on a much grander scale- just in case the audience is getting too confident that these are definitely nice guys.
Louise and Ian are put straight to work as the ship invites humans in every 18 hours via a vertigo-inducing gravity well to attempt to communicate with the ship’s inhabitants enshrouded in wispy smoke. Efforts to communicate the basics through vocal phonetics are a bust and the Colonel starts to grow impatient at the lack of progress in determining the intentions of the interstellar species. Louise, who is increasingly experiencing flashbacks of teaching her young daughter, decides to try the written word instead and manages to provoke various distinctive ink patterns from the creatures.
These circular symbols are dissected and interpreted by the academic duo, who ascertain they are complex sentences without beginning or end that communicate in a non-linear fashion. As their grasp on the alien language increases, it reveals a trigger-word for the military. It falls to Louise to determine exactly what the aliens truly mean before someone, somewhere potentially starts an intergalactic war we’d likely lose.
It should be clear already that communication is a key theme for the film and while the challenge of trying to translate an entirely alien language is the core component here, what sometimes proves more arduous for Adam’s linguist is reasoning with the powers that be and explaining how language really works. These confrontations provide an elegant, compelling vehicle for exposition regarding the methodology of translation and Eric Heisserer’s screenplay deserves much praise for sticking with some genuine nomenclature of the process. This results in the experts actually sound like experts, and while most of the audience won’t necessarily understand the meaning of every word, it all makes sense in each given situation regardless.
By retaining focus almost entirely on Louise’s character, Arrival instills an unprecedented level of insight into a situation where everyone is talking but no one seems to understand. And through her trials, triumphs, flashbacks, and a blossoming relationship with her scientist partner, we gain a satisfying intimacy with Louise that pays off beautifully in the film’s later stages. This is helped in no small part by Amy Adams reminding us why she has been Oscar nominated five times already and could finally win next year thanks to this bravura performance. Staying almost exclusively with Louise’s journey does come at some cost, though.
THE PERSONAL TOUCH
While other similarly themed films have shown such extraordinary events mainly through one protagonist, most notably Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Contact, few have been as myopic as Arrival. This does lead to some elements of the plot being slightly neglected, particularly on the military side of things. Likewise, while we do catch glimpses of the world-at-large descending into the requisite chaos, these scenes often seem somewhat glib and lack the precise conviction that’s overwhelmingly present throughout the rest of the production.
However, this feels more like necessary concessions rather than oversights to keep Adams’ crucial linguist as the priority throughout. At just under two hours that rattle along at an astonishing rate, it is conceivable that a slightly expanded cut exists that could flesh out a few minor areas to push Arrival into the masterpiece bracket it currently falls just outside of. Certainly a little more screentime for both Renner and Whitaker, who obviously perform more than ably in their given roles, could have added a little more flavor to proceedings.
This is mere nitpicking, though, and thanks to an astonishingly brilliant plot development late in the game, Arrival could be forgiven for much more and still shine. So momentous is the device used to tie everything together, it never rings false as the deus ex machina it clearly is. To call it a “twist” would cheapen a moment that blends all the exceptional elements into one glorious harmonious voice to make this magnificent piece of science fiction truly sing.
But perhaps Villeneuve’s greatest achievement, in what will surely be his breakthrough hit, is keeping humanity in the foreground and channeling the film’s big ideas and theories through that rather than action and effects. In a genre where so many notable entries rely on set-pieces and visuals to be memorable, Arrival hardly makes a dent in those regards. But while we may not remember everything we’ve seen after the credits roll, we will remember everything we felt.
CEREBRAL AND BEAUTIFUL. EVOCATIVE AND EMOTIVE. THIS SCI-FI WONDER IS THE MOST WELCOME ‘ARRIVAL’ IN THEATERS THIS YEAR!