Typically, when a sci-fi film invokes the iconography of 2001: A Space Odyssey or Close Encounters of the Third Kind, it’s for the sake of homage or generational nostalgia. In Arrival, however, these allusions are a statement of intent, one of the film’s ways of positioning itself as the latest in a long-running tradition of soulful science fiction cinema. To openly invite comparisons to Stanely Kubrick and Steven Spielberg would seem an act of tremendous temerity, but luckily for director Denis Villeneuve and writer Eric Heisserer, this film has the goods to back it up.
Fans of Mr Villeneuve’s previous work (Prisoners, Enemy, and Sicario) will not be surprised by Arrival‘s brilliance. Mr Villeneuve is someone with a knack for taking stock genre premises and imbuing them with uncommon complexity and élan. Here, he applies this talent to sci-fi’s most archetypal story: our first contact.
Arrival, which is adapted from Ted Chiang’s “Story of your Life,” allows its audience to view events through the prism of world-renowned linguist Dr Louise Banks (Amy Adams). From the beginning, the film acknowledges that its interstellar ambitions will be rooted in humanity. Its understatedly heartrending prologue details the loss of Dr Banks’ daughter to cancer. This opening seamlessly bleeds into an apparently ordinary day for Dr Banks that quickly becomes not-so-ordinary at all; the cacophony of social media alerts from the phones of her students heralds some very big news indeed.
[pullquote]Mr Heisserer’s screenplay is awe-inspiringly ambitious and dazzlingly intricate but has no interest in showing off.[/pullquote]
12 spacecrafts have landed at 12 separate locations around the globe. Their origin and intent remain unknown. Dr Banks is soon visited by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), an acquaintance from her past job as an interpreter for the military. He asks her and theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to undertake a vital mission: man a spaceship above Montana with the goal of making first contact. As paranoia spreads across the globe, it falls to Dr Banks and her colleagues to ascertain the nature of Earth’s extraterrestrial visitors before the human race’s own fear gets the better of it.
Although Mr Villeneuve maintains a certain tautness throughout Arrival, what follows is less thriller than meditation. The film is deliberately paced and perfectly composed, and it is in no hurry to get anywhere. Instead, Arrival is fixated on the minutia of interaction and translation. This is a film unabashedly in love with language and thought, subtly weaving themes of communication and (mis)understanding while simultaneously spinning engaging dialogue out of the technicalities of linguistics. You’ll walk out of the auditorium thinking about words in a way you perhaps never have before. There is something refreshing about how almost unassuming the film is about its heady subject matter and how content it is to be intelligent without ever calling attention to it. Mr Heisserer’s screenplay is awe-inspiringly ambitious and dazzlingly intricate but has no interest in showing off.
[pullquote]They are the rare special effect that really feels special. This is as vivid and rich a vision of alien life as cinema has seen since District 9.[/pullquote]
Much of the same can be said about Mr Villeneuve’s direction, which sees him seeming more assured than ever before. Every frame feels precisely put together, with cinematographer Bradford Young’s camera lovingly dwelling on lyrical images of both the natural and the supernatural. There is something genuinely powerful and somewhat disorienting about the sight of monolithic pods suspended above the earth in mid-air like modern art Death Stars –– they are the rare special effect that really feels special. This is as vivid and rich a vision of alien life as cinema has seen since District 9. The interior of the spaceship, a darkened, upward-reaching tunnel lit only by the bright white screen behind which its inhabitants hide, is as beautiful yet foreboding as the creatures themselves. Their truly otherworldly appearance inspires enchantment and fear in both the film’s audience and the aliens’ in-film observers. Their language, visualised as swirling spirals blown like smoke against the veil separating them from humans and heard as curiously melodic wails and whistles, is a thing of haunting ethereality. It is complemented perfectly by Johan Johansson’s moody, whalesong-esque score. Given his obvious talent for creating wholly original sci-fi, it almost feels like a waste that Mr Villeneuve’s next project is Blade Runner 2049.
As high-minded and visually grand as it may be, Arrival is no emotionally distant exercise in cold spectacle. Yes, the film leaps into cerebrum-melting territory in its final minutes (it won’t hurt to skim Slaughterhouse Five beforehand), but rather than treat its big ideas and ingeniously executed rug-pulls as ends in themselves, Arrival uses them in service of a deeply affecting examination of what it is to love and to lose. The film’s closing lines, so simple but so layered, will stay with you for days.
[pullquote]If this wins Ms Adams her long-overdue Oscar, it will be thoroughly deserved.[/pullquote]
In yet another magnificent performance, Ms Adams anchors the film. Mr Whitaker and Mr Renner provide quality support, but it is Ms Adams’s perfectly composed yet sincerely felt turn that grounds the film. If this wins Ms Adams her long-overdue Oscar, it will be thoroughly deserved.
Although it may have its aesthetic and narrative precedents, Arrival still feels utterly of itself. This is unabashedly big-scale but resolutely intimate sci-fi, the kind of thoughtful and humanistic filmmaking that ennobles mainstream cinema with a message of understanding and union that is powerfully and unfortunately timely. See it and witness a close encounter of a wholly unique kind.