Film Review: 'Arrival'
Denis Villeneuve has done it again.
The utterly fantastic director has put forward another stunningly innovative film in Arrival, an alien invasion tale unlike any other. Villeneuve's previous bone-chilling outings in directing 2013's Prisoners and 2015's Sicario were both unforgettable for showing the darker side of humanity. He's made a habit of eliciting pure, uncut empathy to his movies' characters; and he does the same in Arrival, although instead of opting for somber tones, he goes for the inexpressible feelings of awe, like witnessing something completely out of this world (and in this case, it's literal).
Although to call this an invasion isn't quite right - in fact, we can't say for sure why twelve black, almond-shaped ships have touched down in several different spots on Earth, ominously hovering and towering over mountains like deities. If the film's source material - an original short story by Ted Chiang - had those same feelings of ominousness, Villeneuve has definitely captured them by having his cinematography, score, and editing all match the world's cautious wonder.
So "why are they here?" is the movie's million dollar question, and world-renowned language studies expert Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is wheeled in by the United States government to answer it. As we see in the film's opening, Louise is still reeling from the loss of her daughter to cancer. We flash back to their most moving moments together with fond regularity; a profound touch of humanity in a movie all about aliens.
While Arrival is mostly known for its incredible visuals and an addictively intriguing plot, it's the characters that drive the story. Adams turns in an Oscar-caliber performance as Louise, even if she does not have the nomination to show for it; she is a powerful emotional center to the film, whose every facial expression and movement immerses us further into this familiar, yet vastly unusual situation. Her supporting stars are also of note: Jeremy Renner plays Ian Donnelly, a budding love interest to Louise and a reliable aide; the always-talented Forest Whittaker plays a results-driven military colonel who constantly pounds Louise with the question everyone wants to be answered: "why are they here?" He's the in-house version of what's happening all across the world: nations growing tiresome of fruitless communication with the aliens, and tensions heating up to a boiling point, threatening destruction.
Where Arrival truly stands out from the rest of the alien invasion pack is the path it takes from here: showing the linguistics mastermind deciphering the written language of what the characters dub the heptapods (and what they look like is something you'll have to see to believe). Watching Louise and team decode the logograms - think circular pictographs crossed with a Rorschach test - is a profound mix of sharp direction, delicate pacing, and the creative mind of Villeneueve, Chang, and screenwriter Eric Heisserer. In the outside world, things move fast, but in the movie, time appears to stop - or continually loop.
Villeneuve has always had that way of digging deep into the recesses of the heart and articulating the things that can shake it to its very core. In Prisoners, Villeneuve somehow encapsulated the blood-chilling fear of having a child taken away and the ultimate sacrifices a parent would make to get them back. In Sicario, Villeneuve exposed the blackest, ugliest corners of the soul through the drug trade. In Arrival, he captures the many a-ha moments that come along when studying something with groundbreaking potential and gets us to do all of the critical thinking. Suddenly, as we compare Louise's interactions with the heptapods to those of the rest of the world, we're left floored by how much of a miracle it is we can even communicate amongst each other. Unlike most sci-fi offerings, Arrival does not ask "what if?" but "how?" and "why?"
As is Villeneuve's trademark, the entirety of discovery in Arrival is a buildup to an earth-shattering ending that makes the movie feel as complete and closed as any other great movie out there. Like one of the logograms, it comes all the way back around, taking us through the spectrum of human emotion.
Ironically enough, it's done through the arrival of alien visitors, whose intentions, for the purposes of this review, are unknown. It's a hell of a project to decode their language and to understand why they're here, especially with the looming threat of worldwide violence. But it's an attention-commanding, soul-shaking journey we're glad to undertake.
Your typical director merely shows you that. Villenueve makes you feel that with every fiber, ounce, molecule, and atom of your being.
Rated PG-13. 116 minutes.
Written by Eric Heisserer (screenplay) and Ted Chiang (based on the story "Story of Your Life" written by)
Directed by Denis Villeneuve.
Starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Forest Whitaker.