Director: Denis Villeneuve
Screenplay: Eric Heisserer
Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Tzi Ma
Runtime: 116 Minutes
Original UK Release: 2016
2016 was a strange, turbulent and ultimately dark year on planet earth speaking from a geopolitical perspective, where countries chose to shun progression, close borders and ultimately set its eyes on a path of self-destruction driven by the greed and manipulation of the few over the will of the many. A lack of effort to communicate between peoples of the earth, instead choosing to drive us further apart through violence and impatience to solve the most begging questions and problems facing us today.
Arrival feels like it couldn’t have come at a more potent or meaningful point; a science-fiction drama that champions the efforts of patient intellectualism, which sees its characters strive to bridge barriers of language and understanding with an unfathomable race of extraterrestrials who have without warning arrived on planet earth for an unknown reason.
Based on the short story Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang, Eric Heisserer’s incredibly structured and written screenplay expands upon its premise it’s a feature that thrives on agency and the attention of the audience, as well as trusting in them that its sleight of hand storytelling decisions will pay off by the end.
Denis Villeneuve is behind in director’s chair, and continues to stun audiences and critics with his thoughtful methods of illumination, character focus and a sharp eye for detail and cinematic spectacle of unforeseen grandeur and divergence. His work with cinematographer Bradford Young feels spacious and unique, with a camera that feels intimate and otherworldly as it bolts itself to the scenery on the ground, while in the alien spacecraft suspends itself in the space between bodies like the changing gravity robbing it of earthy weight.
The design of the film, especially the spacecraft and aliens, are incredibly unique and incomparable to mortal construction. The strange image of a long and curved spacecraft towering over the landscape looks stands out as a strong and memorable visual, but the interior of the spacecraft is something else entirely. Bare and open with negative and positive light, while the creatures and their language come to life through incredible sound design and visual effects work even though we never really see them clearly.
Amy Adams is delivering some astonishing work here as Louise Banks, the linguist brought on board to decipher their language and open a dialogue by slowly teaching and learning from them the basics of each other’s written and verbal methods of communication. She’s strong-minded, highly intelligent but ultimately human as we see her exhaustion at her efforts to keep the ticking clock of the narrative at bay, while also dealing with her own complex memories of her daughter who is introduced in the films devastating opening scenes as apparently recently dying of an incurable illness.
It makes it a difficult film to discuss without breaking the spell that is the film’s unique narrative construction, which relies entirely on the slow establishing of facts and evidence before turning the tables on the audiences perceptions in a way that is totally unexpected and ingeniously executed by Villeneuve and his team through the edit, with its disclosure feeling profound, earned and rewarding in its emotional content and baring to our heroine.
In fact, the only minor criticism of an otherwise faultlessly executed piece of science-fiction cinema might be that it’s almost too tight and clever in its execution and character focus to come to any conclusion over the specifics of its actual plot and the details of their arrival and intentions beyond formless gestures. Instead, it gives way to the emotional consequences of its characters, which maybe feels light the right and more humane decision to make.
The rest of the cast are on equal form though to fill out the plot specifics and dramatic beats as the tension slowly raise even without all that much happening, and Jóhann Jóhannsson's foreboding and mysterious score is certainly to thank for sustaining such threat.
Jeremy Renner as physicist Ian Donnelly is a likeable presence even with a lack of backstory afforded to Louise, but they share great chemistry and he’s exceptional at filling out the blanks of his character through the way he delivers his lines and how he holds himself in certain situations. The same goes for Forest Whitaker’s overeager Colonel who can’t be dealing with the process and just wants to see the results, while Michael Stuhlbarg and Tzi Ma fulfil similar functions as reliable performers and characters placed in unusual circumstances.
Arrival is a magnificent film that advocates communication, intelligence, aptitude and tolerance over the bombastic efforts of its blockbuster kin. It’s a story of first contact that feels as conceivably believable and logistically complex as it likely would, but the spectacle of its vision and the incredible work by leading woman Adams sees it transcend its boundaries into a unique and compelling cinematic experience.