"There are days that define your story beyond your life. Like the day they arrived."
Denis Villeneuve is the kind of director that we will, at some point in the future, be studying for their work. With ‘Incendies’, ‘Prisoners’, ‘Enemy’, ‘Sicario’ as well as the upcoming ‘Blade Runner 2048’ Villeneuve has truly marked himself out as a director to watch out for. So with that being said, his latest feature, ‘Arrival’, a daringly ambitious science fiction film should catch the attention of most people to say the least.
A group of mysterious, extra-terrestrial shells suddenly arrive on earth, prompting a planet wide investigation into their origin and their purpose. Among the selected experts is a linguist named Louise Banks (Amy Adams), who is haunted by the memories of her deceased daughter. With mounting pressure from various nations, the situation turns into a race against time to find a way to communicate and understand the mysterious objects.
The best kind of science fiction stories are not necessarily the ones that tackle the biggest questions, the most far out concepts or the most spectacular set pieces (though ‘Arrival’ does have all of those in plenitude). The best kind of science fiction is the kind that is rooted firmly within humanity, one that finds an emotional connection with its characters and focusses on what the people ate the heart of this story are going through rather than the aliens visiting them. From Spielberg’s intimate stories of connections across galaxies to Kubrick’s giant existential minefields, the best kind science fiction has always been about people.
That is why ‘Arrival’ works as well as it does. Combining Villeneuve’s talents with this material not only creates a masterfully directed tale of intrigue, mystery and suspense but also a deeply moving character study that is empathetic and hugely engaging. I would say that a large part of that is due to Amy Adams’ performance (so along with ‘Nocturnal Animals’ this is shaping up to be a pretty good year for her to say the least) that is understated at a glance but upon closer inspection is layered with subtle undertones that not only carve out a fully fleshed out character who proves to be emotionally riveting and engaging for the audience.
It also helps that all of the supporting cast are in the same position. Though not all of them have the depth and complexity of Banks, they are each written with a grounded sensibility that makes them likable or if not that, at least relatable so the viewer can understand their plight, sympathise with them and comprehend their point of view. One example is Jeremy Renner, who as theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly brings a welcome amount of charisma and likability to proceedings, which not only furthers the amount of empathy the audience feels for each character, but ultimately proves to be an essential aspect of the movie’s main emotional conceit.
But as I said before, while the main strength of ‘Arrival’ is in its emotional core, it still has a number of impressive set pieces, mind bending concepts and existential questions that are additional pieces that further the experience rather than substituting for it. It is the kind of movie that you will want to discuss and ponder over for days after watching it, one that may take time to digest and interpret. While some will inevitably be put off by its challenging and provocative themes those patient enough will find that the movie rewards this way of thinking, guiding your thought process to avoid making the story an overly complex mess but never dumbing down the material either.
This brings me onto the director himself. Denis Villeneuve is so completely in control and confident in his telling of this story that it seems amazing that he didn’t have a hand in writing it. While a great amount of credit should be given to the film’s screenwriter Eric Heisserer for crafting such an intimate yet stunningly ambitious story, it is Villeneuve’s direction that truly brings it to life. Bu evoking such a state of unrelenting tension in the film’s first section then tapping into the emotional undertones that define its thematic climax, Villeneuve has such a brilliant understanding of how best to bring the script to life and what components are best suited to the art of cinema that it almost takes your breath away. There are no flashy gimmicks or clever tricks, he brings forth a set of skills that engage the viewer on a subconscious level that is unique to film, one that you could easily miss unless you were looking for it.
Despite not having the visual eye candy of Villeneuve’s other efforts (basically saying Roger Deakins was not the cinematographer for this one) Bradford Young’s visual flair is acceptable enough, rendering a few brilliantly composed and eerily haunting images that add to the atmosphere of the film along with Johann Johannsson’s tense and emotionally fuelled soundtrack. Aside from the pace dragging slightly in the second act, a few contrived plot points and one or two stilted lines of dialogue the film as a whole is masterfully made from start to finish. For all its ambition and wibbly-wobbly-timey-wimey concepts this is a movie about simple communication and how it often breaks down in the face of fear and grief, but also about how it can ultimately prevail through the strong.
Emotionally engaging, masterfully made and stunningly ambitious, ‘Arrival’ is a movie that demands to be seen, discussed and interpreted. A science fiction masterwork for the ages.