Sometimes art can be important. Sometimes it can be special. Be it by timing or construction, it can have a powerful, lasting effect for the right reasons. In both timing and in construction, Arrival is one such example.
Arrival is the best kind of science fiction, a poorly served film genre when you consider the number of releases classed as such. Most are actually action or fantasy and those that need to use science fiction to drive the narrative are few. Arrival has a distinct theory -in this case one of time and language- and distills it into a very human, relatable drama; the feel of the unfamiliar, the alien imagery, accentuates that drama through tense wonder. It makes you think outside of the world it presents and into our own through understated naturalism, which makes the ominous sight of those ships even more indelible. It makes you even think about why you like movies at all.
Certainly when any film achieves a sense of cohesion beyond itself, such as this one does, it perhaps earns even more respect. Not that Denis Villeneuve’s film isn’t the only brilliant film released this year, of course, it might not even be the best, but it works so beautifully, so succinctly. And it's sci-fi! Aliens, for goodness sake!
There are easy wins for a story line this. Big scary spaceships, aliens that may or may not be a threat, a woman in a man's world. Arrival pulls every obvious punch. The commitment to character and theme is so absolute, it's almost perverse. And better than the sum of its parts.
Those who know the potential of science fiction, and who may have read the short novella Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang on which Arrival is based, or know of Kurt Vonnegut’s theories that echo within it, won’t be surprised by Arrival’s premise or execution. Anyone who knows little about the film except that it features aliens, first contact and nervous military, might be pleasantly surprised to hear that it doesn’t tread an obvious path. The reality of Arrival meets somewhere in the middle and it has a generosity of optimism that can be appreciated by everyone.
First and foremost, it’s a drama centred on isolated Dr. Louise Banks played by Amy Adams. We see her haunted by memories of her daughter’s short life; it’s no spoiler to say that the first intention of the film is to break your heart within minutes. Don’t be concerned, it has designs on fixing it too.
If there is a flaw to be criticised it is only that this structure might feel closed or contrived, but I mention that only to condemn it. All fiction is contrived to some degree and has to start somewhere; and it should be forgiven, encouraged even, when it is to an intention that the result is so even-handed, obfuscating the ingenious construction. It should be congratulated that it doesn’t exploit sentimentality, nor is it burdened by exposition or an agenda.
Louise has a routine, teaching languages, a routine that is quickly disturbed in a narrative sense by the actual arrival of 12 mysterious spaceships, hovering over key points of the earth. Are they a threat? Think of the smooth black obelisks in 2001: A Space Odyssey causing a reaction without actual action. They simply impassively hang there. Intentions veiled.
Humans being reactionary, fearful and jealous, the real threat is in how we respond. And so Forrest Whittaker’s Colonel Weber approaches Louise to translate the first clumsy attempts to talk to the visitors in the ship floating over Montana. But it's impossible and she needs to be there herself. Soon she finds herself heading up the team charged with learning how to communicate with the visitors. She works alongside Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), who similarly leads the science team.
From there the simple structure of the film involves Louise and Ian’s various visits to the mysterious craft to talk with the two squid-like aliens, nicknamed Abbott and Costello. It's slow going and fascinating viewing as both sides tease their languages into something that can shared. The tension comes from the pressure applied by governments around the world and their primitive, fear-fuelled thirst to understand the intentions of the aliens before everyone else. There are some attempts to work together, but China in particular start to mobilise troops, piling the pressure on Louise who is pushing to unlock the key to their language and maintain peace.
This is where the narrative is so clever, embracing the films conceit entirely. Linear would be predictable, but neither is it so cheap as to signpost it's intentions. Meanwhile, the 12 ships around the world are cold and black, moving rarely. They could have been MacGuffins, as Hitchcock would consider them. The film's visual identity is centred around those ships; quiet, muted, a masterpiece of CGI because it's the sort you don't notice and compliments Bradford Young's photography, notable for use of natural light. Clouds gathering and rolling like smoke are as memorable as anything Roland Emmerich could throw at us in a more predictable invasion movie.
The spell is completed by Jóhann Jóhannsson’s mesmerising score. Playful, haunting, it is key to delivering the tone. Where the spell could easily be broken is in realising the creatures themselves. You might even wish they'd resist showing them at all, but again they are just one more element of the film designed to respect all others. They are awe-inspiring, but also not jarring. And with no visible face they physically embody the film's fascinating central concept about the unwieldy structure of language and the notion of time.
Their circular sense of language starts to affect Louise. Time becomes indistinct and unreliable as memories of her daughter bleed into the present. The sound and editing throughout is superb in presenting the same sense of confusion, while the witty dialogue keeps it anchored. Eric Heisserer’s intelligent screenplay is a perfect adaptation of the short story, retaining the theories, plot and language, while emphasising Louise’s more intimately private story.
The terrific characterisation gives Ian and Louise personality without exaggeration. They don't change as such. They are just normal people dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Amy Adams performance is simply breathtaking, almost shouldering the film entire and there is barely a scene without her. Her influence through her work is intended to be global, but the lonely dreamlike memories of life with her daughter give the film a crucial melancholy we can all recognise, softening the intensity. Something important to hold onto while things get weird. But she couldn't have quite pulled off the effect without Jeremy Renner. It would be easy to take his spiky, cheerful delivery for granted. Kind of the point though and he is an excellent character actor for support. If we think of his high profile roles in the Marvel movies, etc, this is his thing and he does it very well.
In the end though, this is Denis Villeneuve’s film. His identity and style consummately marshal all the individual pieces together. It's impressive work and intriguing how closely it can be compared with Sicario. Just the same, yet so different, he could deservedly be called an auteur if he keeps this up. Where Sicario was uncomfortably grim, almost perversely so, Arrival reverses it into a slow burn tension with an undercurrent of hope that is as strongly felt as the unrelenting doom in his Mexican drug cartel drama. If he's allowed to pursue the Blade Runner sequel with the same freedom, we will be in for a rare treat.
Reviews shouldn't really be dated, but in this case it's important. Arrival was released in the same week that Donald Trump won the 2016 US Presidential election. It is not fair to dismiss all of his support as bigoted and ignorant, but it is a matter of fact that ignorance and bigotry greased his wheels. The same can be said of Brexit in the UK, and Europe's far-right smell blood in France and Germany. More than ever we need to look out for one another and work together.
Arrival reminds us of our true potential and understands the power of language across cultures to avoid willfully committing to a disaster. Let's hope that the film's inspirational message spreads outside the cinema.
I was not prepared for the purity of Arrival’s intentions, both transcending the pettiness of, and yet embracing humanity. It is just the kind of science fiction film I wanted to see cinema produce. It’s a modern retelling of The Day The Earth Stood Still in the style Jeff Nichols' underrated Take Shelter, which similarly avoided what could have been a pious, perhaps even arrogant message. Instead it's gently sophisticated and intelligently reserved.