Arrival is a singular storytelling achievement that uses its science fiction trappings not just to highlight the trials and tribulations of a planet (and a nation) caught in a spiraling communication breakdown, but to arm moviegoers with the tools to overcome them. It may leave audiences with plenty of unanswered questions about the plot, but it also provides invaluable solutions to more serious problems, the ones humanity faces outside the theater. Beyond being an engaging audiovisual treat with inventive concepts, clever world building, and a fantastic lead performance, it is a genuine force for good and thus one of the most indispensable films of the year.
The plot may hinge upon the twelve extraterrestrial objects that descend from the sky and float menacingly in random spots across the globe, but the movie’s overall effectiveness relies on Amy Adams understated, multi-layered performance as a linguistics expert brought in by the military to communicate with their alien visitors. She’s also haunted by memories of her daughter, who we see grow up and then pass away as a teenager in an Up-like opening that blankets the story with a lingering sadness. This emotional backbone conveys a much-needed sense of aching humanity amidst such cold and foreign proceedings, and also promises a more mature, soul-searching enterprise than what might have been assumed otherwise. It does good on this promise.
The somber tone and measured pacing falls in line with French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve’s previous work such as Prisoners and last year’s Sicario, two oppressively dark and deeply nihilistic thrillers that elevated its pulpy trappings with uncommonly sophisticated introspection and craftsmanship. In many ways, Arrival is more accessible than those films, with a tighter and more focused screenplay alongside a clear-cut science fiction premise and creative, breathtaking visuals that draw from popular genre forebears like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Interstellar. As I have alluded to, its message is also far less cynical than in Villeneuve’s other films, and that message is made truly unforgettable thanks to the wallop that its twists and turns provide. Though adapted from a short story, Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer have created a unique narrative vision that feels as though it could only work in a visual medium. To elaborate would be to ruin its power.
In other ways, however, the movie has the potential to alienate (no pun intended) mainstream audiences hungry for a thrilling sci-fi blockbuster to make up for the summer’s terrible Independence Day: Resurgence. Be forewarned: thrilling is not a word that applies to Arrival. It is a very slow film, sometimes frustratingly so. Both in regards to the aesthetics and the narrative, Villeneuve chooses to conceal far more often than to reveal. He prescribes to the age old adage that fear and paranoia are heightened when the audience is forced to imagine for themselves. The thick tension drawn out of the early scenes in particular (before either the aliens nor ships are shown) is the mark of an assured master director. For some, the deliberate pacing may understandably prove too punishing, which was more or less my takeaway from his last few projects.
For others, even at its slowest the film will remain utterly gripping from first frame to last because of the sheer visionary prowess Villeneuve wields. The anxiety-inducing cinematography dynamically shifts from an emphasis on the ominous grandeur of the looming spacecrafts to the claustrophobic innards of military base camps. Meanwhile, Johann Johannson’s score provides a gorgeously unsettling soundtrack that calls upon the otherworldliness of 2001‘s iconic hums and Akira‘s surreal, manic cacophony. Both the look and sound create a hypnotic and eerie pull, only broken by a few instances of clumsy dialogue and forced humor (usually from Jeremy Renner’s bland scientist character). It has an ethereal quality, successfully coming off as though the film itself was somehow manipulated by alien forces rather than by the delicate human hands and brilliant human minds that painstakingly crafted it that way.
The most mysterious thing about Arrival is that you will walk out of the theater feeling oddly uplifted. You may find yourself racking your brain and analyzing your every emotion for clues as to how the movie managed to elicit such a potent sense of hopefulness despite its foreboding atmosphere and deliciously creepy aesthetics. Perhaps some semblance of an answer can only come after a second viewing, or maybe a third, or a fourth. A recent phenomena on YouTube is the rise of video essays, many tearing into particularly intricate pop culture classics. Arrival practically begs for that level of ravenous analysis – it begs people to engage with it and understand its inner workings for our own benefit. And that in itself is the message. Arrival is a complete film about the completeness of understanding others in order to understand one’s self. And it’s exactly what our world needs right now.
Score: 4.5 out of 5