From the jump of a piercing prologue that plays like Christopher Nolan’s Up to a bittersweet, mind-bending resolution, Arrival boldly inverts every expectation you might have for a film about invading aliens.
The pro forma military / CIA presence is both everywhere and ephemeral; voices bellowing instructions across a plain where one of 12 alien spacecraft has hovered worldwide feel infinitely more disembodied than the beasties’ tentacles themselves. You can put air quotes around a pair of action scenes. And while the aliens resemble Kang and Kodos under H.R. Giger’s icy, monochromatic stamp, the creature design of note belongs to humans whose choices we care about and in whose fates we invest far more than simple questions of life and death.
Here, a linguist named Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and a theoretical physicist named Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) team up to prove how communication, rather than force, can prevail. An indomitably lofty goal on paper at best, a cornball one at worst. It could go Sagan or Sphere. (The only misstep? Forest Whitaker slathering a goofus accent on his military colonel.)
But Arrival captures our attention without ever resorting to violent pop-offs or forcing talkative end-arounds due to budgetary constrictions. It’s a transfixing mixture of minimalist nuance in Eric Heisserer’s thankfully undiluted script (adapted from Ted Chiang’s short story “Story of Your Life”) and maximal spectacle that’s the stock-in-trade of director Denis Villeneuve – who, after fumbling with the pretty-vacant Enemy and Sicario, returns to the emotionally tumultuous heights of Prisoners.
Heisserer’s approach builds optimism and tension in equal measure — interested in the idea that all of us, whether learners or teachers, have once been partners in building common avenues of communication. It’s a notion often exalted, but not often with so much urgency, especially after this week’s divisive U.S. election. He also finds unexpected moments of levity, such as the symbolically clever nicknames Ian assigns to a pair of otherworldly emissaries. Whatever martial might there is mounts only at the margins — a perfect, discordant grace note to the chords of Heisserer’s thesis.
Meanwhile, Villeneuve’s vision and cinematographer Bradford Young’s eye signify the many ways in which even our familiar world comes to feel like an alien surface, whether by design of our own insecurities or a grander power. Perspective shots of roofs and ceilings illustrate the omniscience and oppression of natural environments, the moments at which comfort transforms into a sort of self-imposed confinement.
There’s also an intoxicating sense of imagination, wonderment and discovery. You’ll catch a hitch in your breath at the earthbound perspective Young maintains in the frame as Louise and Ian first enter “the Shell” (a code name given to the alien ship), which maintains a sense of the last time the seemingly natural laws of the world reversed on Louise. Viewers could also feast for days on the sight of omnidirectional fog spilling from, forth, over and around the craft itself. Villeneuve and Young require no fussy, faddish filmmaking gadgets to achieve transcendence, and composer Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score similarly swells and recedes from icy isolation to approachable grandeur.
It may seem like Adams’ low-key turn merely blows Prestige Actor™ misdirection on thick winds of exposition. Instead, hers is a gentle depiction of logic, nurture, responsibility and uncertainty — a woman trying to reconcile the order of her life’s work with the chaos of what unfolds before her. Without her subtle conveyance of a surplus of emotions, sometimes even in stillness, the third act notions of the ways in which time makes vassals, and vessels, of us all could flame out in furious melodrama. Renner also relishes a chance to slough off franchise duty for a change.
Arrival has its obvious analogs in cerebral, big-swinging classics like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and The Day the Earth Stood Still. And one of its ultimate questions contains the classic conundrum: Do these aliens mean to unify, or annihilate, us? But it is only ever its own animal — allegory for right-this-instant anxieties when communication seems as perilously poised as ever to falter with finality. To that end, it’s less peace or war, more Tower of Babel or Esperanto.
Ostensibly an alien story, Arrival tackles, with confidence and clarity, the conflict of whether mankind will acquiesce or aggress, come together or cloister tighter, compromise or collapse. Here is a masterwork of both the moment and the millennium.