By Elias Savada.
In Hollywood, when you hear the words “alien invasion,” you might expect any manner of shoot-’em-up movies like Independence Day (1996) or Edge of Tomorrow (2014), among many other rousing popcorn-munching action pictures that have landed in our planet’s multiplexes. Arrival is a bit different. It is a wildly satisfying “alien arrival” film, an existential excursion into the confusion and conflicts surrounding the process of communicating with newly landed extraterrestrial beings. Huge, hulking ones that look like walking tree trunks wearing elephant skins and with seven lower appendages. Their interstellar vehicles are gravity-bending, vertigo-inducing spaceships (take a glance at the smart phone screens as the human explorers venture inside), which hover at twelve disparate locations around planet Earth.
By the way, Arrival is one of the best films of the year.
Then again, French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve has wildly entertained us before, with a slow-burning Middle Eastern voyage of discovery in Incendies (2010, Best Foreign Language Film nomination, his third feature) and continuing through the critically-acclaimed Prisoners (2013) and Enemy (2014), both providing thrilling stories and riveting performances by Jake Gyllenhaal. Last year he gave us a frantic look at drugs, terror, and corruption with the Oscar-nominated Sicario. And now, Arrival is a terrific tune-up for Villeneuve’s latest project, the sequel to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner.
The film’s bookends, melancholy set pieces that evoke thoughts of Terrance Malick – but without the self-indulgence – are a quick brush through a dozen years in life for the film’s protagonist, the laid-back yet determined Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), the linguist hired by the U.S. government to figure out the aliens’ who, what, where, when, and why. Especially in the prelude segment, we see the doting mother Banks (laying out the character’s humanistic perspective) in a deeply personal relationship with her daughter, Hannah (Abigail Pniowsky), as the pair deal with some life issues. These parts are burnished with slow-motion urgency and framed by British composer Max Richter’s gently moody “On the Nature of Daylight” (previously used in the 2006 Stranger Than Fiction and a host of other films, but none to better effect than in Arrival). Here, there’s an intense marriage of picture and sound. Richter has said of his track that he had “the idea of trying to make something luminous out of the darkest possible elements and at the same time something that feels like a story being told powerfully with minimal elements”. Perfect.
Much of the melancholic, unsettling, and intellectual tone of the film derives from Nebula-winning author Ted Chiang’s 1998 short story “Story of Your Life”, with screenwriter Eric Heisserer providing a tense geo-political overlay that audiences very well might find as soul shattering as the United States election results. Villeneuve has armed himself with an incredible crew. Cinematographer Bradford Young (who worked with Ava DeVernay on both Middle of Nowhere, 2012 and Selma, 2014), editor Joe Walker (12 Years a Slave, 2013), production designer Patrice Vermette (his fourth collaboration with the director), and eclectic composer Jóhann Jóhannson (The Theory of Everything, 2014) blend their collective craftsmanship into a mesmerizing accomplishment. The chiaroscuro facial lighting, subdued color palate, slow-moving zooms, and limited depth-of-field shots that explore a dark, earthy, blurred world (kudos to focus puller Dany Racine!), as do the intercutting of Louise’s thoughts into an intoxicating temporal experience as she learns the alien language; the bleak, black spaceships that are soothingly shaped like an oval Frisbee; and the whale-like blasts of the discordant sound design that preclude a rapture-style event. There are times in the film you will be reminded of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), another excellent arrival film, wondering if the sound design is giving homage to the five-note musical sequence from that film.
According to Villeneuve: “We wanted to create a sci-fi movie that [gave you a feeling] like when you were a kid on the school bus on a rainy day and you’d dream while looking [out the window] at the clouds – that kind of atmosphere, getting away from the scope of the huge movies.” The Arrival doesn’t feel like your normal Hollywood movie. It’s quite intimate, even when showing world views (via television, the web) of events that are unfolding in the month the visitors spend with their various hosts (including various world leaders – the U.S. landing is in Montana). You are intensely pulled into the film, not only for its technical excellence, but because of the incredible cast. Amy Adams has never been finer as the vulnerable university professor recruited to link two civilizations. Jeremy Renner, generally known for his intense action roles, is here a compassionate, occasionally spunky, math-geek sidekick Ian Donnelly, a Los Alamos theoretical physicist with more than passing support to some of Louise’s methods. Forest Whitaker and Michael Stuhlbarg as the Army Colonel Weber and CIA Agent Halpern, respectively, provide additional weight.
For all the metaphysical implications the movie offers, which might seem to indicate it’s not a film for the masses (it is: go see it!), there are some tense moments, particularly when army soldiers take matters into their own hands while paying too much attention to some right wing online opinion-makers (a subtle kick at Fox News).
If you’re looking for some thought-provoking entertainment, catch The Arrival. It’s an emotional maelstrom that can be enjoyed many times (I’m at three…and counting). It’s wonderful.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the new documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (the revised edition will be published in 2017 by Centipede Press).