Why are they here?
Turn your brain on. That’s probably the best advice I could give anybody about to venture into Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, the esteemed French-Canadian filmmaker’s first dabble into the world of sci-fi, Villeneuve having long ‘dreamed of doing science-fiction since [he] was ten years old.’ As is the case with most of Villeneuve’s features — think the impressive Prisoners (2013) and Sicario (2015) — Arrival is anything but conventional, the film — unlike Roland Emmerich’s noisy Independence Day (1996) — being a soul-stirring, thought-provoking yet stimulating War of the Worlds type procedural, one that brings to mind the awe and wonderment of Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), but with an semi-academic twist.
Based on the short story titled ‘Story of Your Life,’ by author Ted Chiang, Arrival follows expert linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), who’s voluntarily recruited as part of an elite U.S. government team to investigate ominous extraterrestrial spacecraft — known as ‘shells’ — that have, without warning, touched down all over the planet, twelve ships hovering over twelve seemingly random locations. In order to understand the purpose of the mysterious invaders’ visit — the big questions being: why were they here, what did they want, and where did they come from? — Louise is assigned to assist in translating the alien language, studying the lifeforms on board a vessel situated in Montana. Aided by mathematician Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), hired as a physicist to deal with communication through arithmetic, both Banks and Donnelly operate in a unit under U.S. Army Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), a gruff senior military intelligence officer. With the political climate upended and mankind teetering on the verge of international war, leaders across the globe desperately scramble for answers — China set to launch a pre-emptive strike on one of the UFO ships. But before calamity ensues, Banks — establishing a semi-psychic ‘link’ with two of the aliens — is forced to take a risk that could potentially threaten her life and endanger all of humanity, one that may uncover the true purpose behind this arrival.
Supported by a gripping, remarkably layered and well structured screenplay — penned by Eric Heisserer, Lights Out (2016) — director Villeneuve effectively melds two of his personal loves: science and cinema. Opening with an attention-grabbing sequence, one that instantly sets the tone and tempo whilst immediately hooking in audiences — though, anyone who knows anything about Villeneuve can deduce that the true value of this scene won’t be revealed until much later on — Arrival begins quite strongly, this intro setting up a flagrant sense of mystery that propels the story forward.
Somewhat minimalistic, in terms of big-budget spectacle, Arrival blatantly shy’s away from those tired alien-invasion tropes and, instead, shifts the action into a more scaled-down arena, Villeneuve pushing for realism over the supernatural — think exaggerated reality. Opting for a practical approach to its fantastical subject matter, Villeneuve (no stranger to the thriller genre) heightens the rising tension via increasing fear and xenophobia circulating around Earth’s new visitors, this generating heavy drama and strong suspense. Further enhancing the conflict is the steady and concise editing by Joe Walker, which keeps proceedings fluid and organic, Walker — having previously collaborated with the (now) 49-year-old filmmaker on Sicario — fully in sync with Villeneuve’s trademark pulse and pacing.
Sure, Arrival may be considered too slow, subdued or cerebral for some; though, one must remember that Villeneuve is (and always has been) more focused on big ‘ideas’ as opposed to big ‘action.’ That said, many of the movie’s finer moments involve our protagonists dissecting the mechanics of a simple sentence, or deciphering letters and words (the aliens communicating through vaporous inky rings), Arrival surveying language as a form of exchange and how this communication can ultimately determine the perception of one’s world around them — this eventually leading us into the realm of metaphysics. But hey, there is one explosion early on in the flick’s third act — a nifty little blast that brings about some cool onscreen turbulence.
From a visual standpoint Arrival comes next to none, cinematographer Bradford Young, A Most Violent Year (2014), and production designer Patrice Vermette, Prisoners (2013), skillfully balancing atmospheric calm with gritty real-world bedlam, the film having a grounded yet ethereal aesthetic. The shape and texture of the quasi-underwater aliens is rather inimitable, too, these vaguely abstract beings — the two ‘heptapods’ we meet nicknamed ‘Abbott and Costello’ — resembling tentacled Grim Reapers — think Lovecraftian Gorillas in the Mist (1988). Moreover, the floating ovoid vessels, in which these ETs reside, are a striking fusion of grace and menace — sound designer Dave Whitehead, District 9 (2009), and supervising sound editor Sylvain Bellemare, Incendies (2010), bringing life to these otherworldly crafts and creatures with a knockout blend of murmuring silences, foreign clicks and hums, and rumbling vibrations. Additionally, the score by Villeneuve regular Jóhann Jóhannsson helps generate a unique ambiance that’s moody and threatening yet equally mellow.
Headed by Hollywood heavyweights Amy Adams, American Hustle (2013), Jeremy Renner, The Hurt Locker (2008), and Forest Whitaker, The Last King of Scotland (2006), the lead performances in Arrival are all exceptional, each star anchoring the narrative with earnest, unassuming and nuanced renderings — Adams’ Banks, in particular, comes off as beautifully vulnerable, a woman who, despite her apparent grief, is willing to embark on a new ‘adventure’ — several characters having an entwined fate and hidden connection that’s somewhat indiscernible until its unveil.
Touching, thematically rich and visually robust (albeit a tad too sentimental in parts), Arrival is an ambitious, ultra-intelligent sci-fi drama, custom made for those who like a shot of ‘smarts’ with their popcorn — the film, dealing heavily with memory and loss, bound to get an emotional response from a handful of viewers.
Given Arrival’s promo poster ‘blunder’ — which saw Shanghai’s Oriental Pearl Tower unintentionally placed in Hong Kong’s harbor skyline, this sparking anger amongst Hong Kongers who stormed the Internet with a ‘HongKongIsNotChina’ hashtag — the film is anything but. Even if some have lost faith in Paramount’s inept marketing team (who have since apologized for the slip-up), any reservations about Denis Villeneuve’s upcoming Blade Runner 2049 — set for a 2017 release — can be put to rest, Arrival proving that science-fiction, in the right hands, can still be powerful, profound and willing to push boundaries — even if produced by major motion-picture studios.
4 / 5 – Recommended
Reviewed by S-Littner