A first encounter of the most stellar kind.
In a case of life imitating art, this is also the director’s first contact with the sci-fi genre. Yet, with the same level of expertise in cinematic storytelling as the main character in analyzing languages, Denis Villenueve has made a film so personal, stimulating and—thanks to the election—startlingly necessary, despite a frame constructed from the what-ifs and out-there ideas.
The film begins on a heavily human note, with linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) going through key moments between her and her late daughter, Hannah. Louise’s restlessness increases tenfold when news channels say that 12 alien spaceships have landed on Earth with unknown intentions. The world is on edge. What is known so far, though, as Col. Weber (Forest Whitaker) and his recorder can attest, is that the guests do communicate, and that Louise’s interpreting skills are needed before armies of the world decide to take action.
Similar to the phenomenal thrillers “Incendies” and “Prisoners,” Villenueve explores and prioritizes the psychology of the narrative—in this case, the 1998 short story “Story of Your Life”—with a wealth of atmosphere and a measured style that can swing between soothing and suspenseful at any given time. It’s the uncertainty, and the eerie simplicity in conveying it, that makes watching “Arrival” an otherworldly experience. Viewers are made to be as bewildered as the characters, nary a chance to foresee solutions or that dizzying, satisfying and enlightening twist.
Earthlings, on screen and watching the screen, are helpless at the presence of the eerie, towering and concave spaceships. No city has been destroyed and no bullets have been fired.
Aside from the “Heptapods,” the Army’s designation of the radially symmetrical, seven-pointed aliens, a biped named Amy Adams delivers a larger-than-life presence on screen. Akin to her performance in “American Hustle” (in which her co-star was Jeremy Renner also in), Adams exhibits a quietly intense appearance that masks the crisis underneath, a performance with great strength despite the lightness in expression and diction.
It’s audacious to convey scope or depth with just a few brushstrokes, but, with Eric Heisserer’s writing, Adams and the film’s heady themes get to do that. Extraterrestrials, communication (or the lack of it), time and grief—there’s every reason to see “Arrival” drown itself in verbose and slightly sear the brain explaining these ideas, but that didn’t happen since Heisserer crafted conversations about them with delightful concision and snappiness. A minor gripe is that, in its rapid stride, the screenplay seems to have forgotten the dossier containing the solution to the aliens’ smoky, ink-like language.
Rounding “Arrival” in its sleek sheen is an audiovisual package that, like the direction, doesn’t need to be showy to awe. Deliberate or not, the ambiguity, or subject-to-interpretation, nature of the written/spoken word is also embedded in composer Jóhann Jóhannson’s skin-crawling soundtrack and cinematographer Bradford Young’s mellow movements. What the eyes and ears register in the first watch, what they might perceive as threatening, can become wonderful (and even soothing) in subsequent showings.
There is a beautiful strangeness in a film that basks in the unknown: A sci-fi entry where humans (and their condition) take prominence over dazzling technology and, in relation to reality, a film about what we can (and should strive to do) to shape the world for the days that have yet to arrive.
Amy Adams (Louise Banks), Jeremy Renner (Ian Donnelly), Forest Whitaker (Col. Weber), Michael Stuhlbarg (Agent Halpern)
Directed by: Denis Villeneuve (“Prisoners”)
Written by: Eric Heisserer (“Lights Out”), Ted Chiang (based on the novel “Story of Your Life” by)
Cinematography by: Bradford Young (“Selma”)
116 min., PG-13
Release date: Nov.11
10 out of 10.