‘Arrival’ Solidifies Itself Beside Modern Sci-Fi Classics
Director Denis Villeneuve has built a career out of exploring the human condition, albeit toying with the darker side. Both Prisoners and Sicario are prime examples of this, exploring grounded themes of obsession and desperation. So, it comes as a shocker, that he ventures outside of his confines with an uplifting and inspirational narrative such as Arrival.
Feel-good science fiction seems to be the trend as of late. With the releases of Gravity, Interstellar and The Martian, Arrival is the latest film to follow suit. Arrival opens to a web of mystery. Linguist Louise (Amy Adams) quickly recollects the entire life of her daughter, who passed away before reaching adulthood. This heartbreaking montage is practically unveiled within a blink of an eye. Returning to present day, Louise forwards the mystery to the day “they arrived.”
Hammering down a cerebral alien invasion or first contact film is no easy task. The easy way out, obviously, is to take the Independence Day route. Explosions and larger-than-life heroes flood our viewing screens. Arrival is thankfully the polar opposite. When the egg-shaped vessel land in Montana, we have zero idea of their intention. Are they violent? Or a we dealing with peaceful explorers, curious about our planet. Over the course of Arrival, their true agenda is revealed. But, it’s the gradual journey of two hours that leads to a genuine payoff.
Plucked from her university, Adams’ Louise is sent to communicate with the aliens at the Montana site. Alongside theoretical physicist Ian (Jeremy Renner), the two are given the opportunity every 18 hours to speak with the aliens, referred to as Heptapods. First and foremost, the team is dealing with a language barrier. The Heptapods converse in circular symbols and the intent is never is a linear order. Adams and Renner aren’t the only team dealing with the Heptapods either. Eleven other crafts are parked around the globe and with tension between nations, sharing necessary information doesn’t seem to be on the top of the list.
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While not as morally dark as Villeneuve’s other films, Arrival retains much of his signature tone and methodical tension. It poses the intellectual questions about first contact the likes we haven’t seen since Zemeckis’ Contact or Spielberg’s Close Encounters. Much of that is credited to Eric Heisserer’s stellar screenplay and the Ted Chiang’s source material, “Story of Your Life.” For a while, Villeneuve plays up the film as a trial-and-error process. While Arrival may seems slow and redundant to some audiences, logistically it unfolds like a top-notch mystery.
Adams is undoubtedly incredible, offering up one of her best if not her best performance of her career. While attempting to decipher the alien language, she is also tormented by flashes of her daughter’s short life. Heisserer’s screenplay doesn’t offer Renner much to do outside of the beginning and end. Throughout much of Arrival, he’s essentially Louise’s back-up when she’s running the show.
Like every other Villeneuve film, Arrival is gorgeous. Bradford Young’s electric cinematography could almost be mistaken for Villeneuve collaborator, Roger Deakins. It’s some of the best of the year. Insert Johan Johannson’s brooding score, which borrows heavily from his own Prisoners and Sicario and we have ourselves the total package.
Under the surface of first contact, Arrival is nothing short of a calculating success, driving home the unexpected triumphs of human nature. If you want to be faced with the big questions that don’t go away anytime soon, then Arrival did its job. The ultimate reveal is slightly rushed as Villeneuve plows towards the finish line. But, it doesn’t hinder the impact of the deeper themes.