The cryptic and ambiguous ad campaign for Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival” made the movie impossible to define. Some things are obvious. “Arrival ” is clearly science fiction and it looks to be playing around in the ‘alien invasion’ sub-genre. Past that it’s hard to tell what this movie is. There isn’t a glimpse of alien warfare or mass destruction. Actually there is no big action highlight to speak of. Since Hollywood has influenced our leanings towards that type of movie, I’m certain some people will leave “Arrival” having expected something far different than what they were given.
Denis Villeneuve is a filmmaker as difficult to pin down as his new movie. But there is one thing we can learn from his small but impressive filmography. Villeneuve loves tension and his ability to ratchet it up through a wild assortment of means is showcased in each of his movies. “Arrival” is a much different project but it doesn’t take long to recognize that common thread of tension.
The film is based on Ted Chiang’s award-winning short story “Story of Your Life” which played with linguistics and communication inside of an alien encounter. Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer stick close to that idea. Their adaptation isn’t about flying saucers, alien abductions, or the CGI devastation of Earth’s metropolises. It’s much more cerebral and metaphysical. I guess you could say this is the thinking man’s alien abduction movie.
Amy Adams plays Louise, a language professor who, along with everyone else on the planet, is shocked when twelve mysterious spacecraft land at different points around the globe. After one ship lands in Montana, Louise is approached by Army Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to lead a team sent in to communicate with the aliens. She is to work alongside theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to find the answer to the biggest question – what is their purpose here?
To answer that question Louise and Ian must first learn the alien’s highly advanced language which comes in the form of symbols resembling inkblots or coffee mug stains. For Louise it’s imperative that her superiors be patient, but as world governments begin to cave to paranoia it could be us who ushers in a global catastrophe.
There is another reoccurring layer to the story that feeds into the overall mystery. From the opening shot we get flashbacks to a tragedy from Louise’s past. The more she learns of the alien language the more vivid her flashbacks become. In addition to developing suspense, these sequences provide a human pulse to the film mainly because of Adams’ measured performance. She is sophisticated enough as an actress to remain genuine and understated which keeps her character emotionally grounded.
Villeneuve’s storytelling is both patient and methodical which is sure to frustrate some and blow the minds of others. Yet while deliberate, the aforementioned tension never fully leaves even in the quieter scenes. That’s in big part thanks to an ever-present sense of dread and an eerie ominous mood which is clearly a focal point. Villeneuve has shown himself to be a stylish, visual filmmaker and he combined his flair for tantalizing imagery with cinematographer Bradford Young’s love for deep shadows and natural lighting. Also adding to the mood is the ethereal, off-kilter score from Villeneuve favorite Jóhann Jóhannsson. It’s both beautiful and foreboding – some of the best use of movie music this year. Plus there is the use of Max Richter’s exquisitely haunting “On the Nature of Daylight” which is such a perfect fit.
The film’s final act becomes a real mindbender as we start fitting together all of the pieces including some things we didn’t even know were pieces. This too is sure to split audiences between those who go for its mental gymnastics and those who see it as too much. Me, I loved it from the start. I appreciated the intelligent science fiction, but also how the film steps beyond genre. It turned out to be far more intimate and thought-provoking than I ever expected. And all of that on top of the superb visuals, art direction, and score. “Arrival” is an absolute gem from Denis Villeneuve and hopefully a precursor to his next movie, 2017’s Blade Runner sequel.
VERDICT – 5 STARS