Director Denis Villeneuve has come back after his slightly under cooked Sicario with a film best experienced totally immersed. While Arrival is being touted as a “thinking mans science fiction film” (and to a point, it is) the film is also at it’s best when the people around you fade away, along with your thoughts about what’s to come after the film credits roll or whatever else might be lingering in the back of your mind. While there are moments to ponder surely, Arrival is an emotional experience, much greater than the intellectual, thoughtful experience one may expect. A film more about processing grief and realizing the unity of the world than the aliens who hail on the posters, Arrival will yes, make you think about what lies beyond our atmosphere, but more than that it will make you feel, and do so strongly.
Louise (Amy Adams-magnetic) is a master linguist who is recruited when a mysterious spacecraft touches down on earth across the globe, joining an elite team in order to decipher who the inhabitants are, why they’re here and what they want. First though, Louise will have to break the barrier of basic communication with the help of Ian (a charismatic Jeremy Renner) an eager scientist. The greatest hurdles in bridging their communication isn’t the complete different take on language and how theirs doesn’t follow any linear patterns, or even Louise’s somewhat crumbling reality and past, present and future all seem to meld together. No, the greatest challenge will be the worlds inability to work together, as they must do in order to prevent a man made catastrophe born out of the fear of “other”, an arms race for the 21st century.
The film is much more interested in capturing the learning experience than any easy action set pieces that would liven up the proceedings. We spend time with Louise as she painstakingly pours over her notes and captures of the worlds visitors and their language, as she grasps at how best to start a conversation when they share no linguist commonality. It’s mentioned in the film that language is both the worlds greatest tool as it is their weapon, and we see how this can be true as she develops a back and forth with the alien life form while the world around her alienates from each other further due to miscommunication. Written by Eric Heisserer and based on the short story Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang, the story moves along at a smooth and confident pace, never wasting a breath or inserting a scene that in the end could’ve been replaced for one better. Instead the momentum only builds and never looses it’s chilly but inviting atmosphere.
Bradford Young, the director of photography, does some remarkable work here, be it capturing the warmth and color of the nature surrounding the characters who often are so embedded in a sterile world, or by firmly distinguishing the contrast between Louise and the aliens. The cinematography in this film is significant, as it doesn’t reflect so many other alien “invasion” films which use an abundance of dark colors to either create a bigger sense of mystery or fear. In Arrival everything is brightly shot, with the utilization of shadows coming into play primarily in moments of memory, or grief. The photography accompanied by the score by Jóhann Jóhannsson creates a melancholy atmosphere, and Jóhannsson’s work is masterful, proving that the greatest asset a score can give the film it’s accompanying is to be both distinct but to never draw focus, rather, playing perfectly in tune with the story at work.
And Villeneuve has created a timeless story. There are third act shenanigans which will likely be the deal breaker on whether people love this film or don’t, but the sheer craftsmanship that goes into the first two shouldn’t be overlooked. He created an emotional alien movie, where while the aliens arrive on our doorstep, it’s up to humans to make the first step, to put aside their weapons of war and reach out with the simplest, yet mightiest tool in our arsenal, the spoken word. Why are you here? Where are you from? What is your purpose on earth? All of these are leading questions, ones which expect a volatile reaction. Arrival subverts those questions, our expectations when walking into a science-fiction film with aliens at its core, by turning them on ourselves. What is our purpose?
The evocative nature of the story at the heart of Arrival will be what lingers the longest, be it the themes of grief, connectivity between worlds, or even nations, and the idea that peace could be a reality of fear wasn’t a mandate in reacting to something foreign to our sensibilities. It isn’t difficult to apply that thought to today’s world, where fear of the other, fear of the different can all lead to injury, death and separation. Arrival will make us think about all of that, but it will touch something greater in ourselves that will weigh heavy on us as we leave the theater, less wanting to talk things our with whomever accompanies, but rather stew in the tumultuous emotions the film has left us with. With the sense of loss, grief, acceptance and, ultimately, hope. For this is a hopeful tale despite it’s forlorn air, one where a linguist is the hero at the end of the day, where the answer to peace is obvious and the notion that despite terrible loss, life goes on, life still exists and it will be remembered.
Arrival hits theaters November 11th.
This is a reprint of the review from the Toronto Film Festival. For more TIFF 2016 coverage, go here.