Stunning, Timely Sci-Fi
The greatest science fiction films use the genre’s trappings to say something crucial about the human condition, with even some of the most explosion-filled entries into the genre having layered and meaningful metaphors deepening the silly spectacle on screen. Director Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival takes one of the most tried and true sci-fi scenarios, first contact with an alien race, and turns it into an intimate affair that strikes a deft balance between the scientific and the emotional.
With an intimate focus on its limited cast of characters off-setting the massive stakes of the story, Arrival is a film that engages the brain and creates layers of emotional investment without sacrificing either aspect. In return, Villeneuve’s film becomes a highly rewarding experience that feels universal yet extremely timely in what it has to say concerning the value of communication, connection, and acceptance.
Those ideas play out when aliens arrive on Earth for the first time, sending governments worldwide into a confused frenzy. In the midst of that chaos, linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is contacted by the U.S. Government to attempt communication with the mysterious aliens who have landed in Montana – just one of 12 space crafts that have landed around the world. As she attempts to decipher and understand the language of the aliens, Banks must also confront her grief surrounding a personal loss and the perils of misunderstandings that come from cross-cultural communication.
The brilliance of Villeneuve’s film, adapted by Eric Heisserer from Ted Chiang’s short story “The Story of Your Life,” is that it couches massive swells of genuine human emotion within the larger, scientifically-minded narrative. Centered on what it takes to understand a brand new, wholly different language, Arrival takes its time in establishing the science of communication and what is at stake in the process. Villeneuve’s film isn’t afraid to be excited about its scientific discoveries and the intricacies of building a language. It’s a bold decision, but it’s one that separates Arrival from most other alien contact stories and pushes it into the pantheon of intelligently written and delicately shaped science fiction that shows off the best of the genre.
It’s all beautifully brought to life with Villanueve’s sense of scale and stark, mood-filled lighting brought by cinematographer Bradford Young. The two collaborators give equal weight to the monolithic alien ships that play host to a majority of the film’s runtime and to the outstanding performances at hand. In doing so, Arrival maintains an intimate focus within the global idea of its narrative.
Those moments of sweeping alien grandeur and numerous quiet scenes of contemplation are bolstered by composer Johann Johannsson’s bone-rattling score. Johannsson’s music frequently reflects the thunderous, imposing sounds of the aliens’ form of verbal communications and his use of experimental vocal, piano, and percussion looping feels hypnotic without being distracting. There’s a rhythmic, meditative beauty to Johannsson’s work that syncs up incredibly well with the film’s quiet, personal approach to its story.
Anchoring that approach is Adams’ brilliant and achingly human performance. Given that vast swaths of Adams’ performance involves silently communicating with CGI alien life and sussing out the intricacies of a new language, it’s amazing to see how much emotional weight the actress brings to the role. Adams brings a complex, wounded interior life to the character of Louise and it’s due to her wonderful acting that the crucial emotional aspects of Arrival work so well amongst a twisting, slowly revealing narrative structure.
As Arrival begins to reveal the truth beneath its complicated structure, the beauty of its ideas and central character are brought to light perfectly. Great sci-fi works when it takes bold, extravagant ideas and moors them within human truths. That’s exactly what Arrival does and it’s Adams who brings it all together in a quietly assured performance.
But while Arrival is most certainly Adams’ film, she’s supported by several key performances. Most crucially is Jeremy Renner as Ian Donnelly, a theoretical physicist working to contact the aliens along with Louise. Renner has a worn down type of charm that makes even the most head scratching of scientific equations feel real and he also works as both counterpoint and source of support for Adams’ increasingly beleaguered character. While much of Renner’s performance works in relation to what Adams is doing, it provides meaningful human connection within the narrative, which grows increasingly important as the story shifts from being scientific first and foremost to being character-centric and highly emotional in its conclusions.
While it is difficult to completely dissect the emotional elements of Arrival and what makes them so successful without delving into spoilers, suffice it to say that the film genuinely earns its emotionality. Although there is a late reveal within the film that is best not known prior to seeing the film, Arrival works incredibly well with or without being spoiled beforehand. Take it from my own personal experience. This is not a twist for twist’s sake or a sudden gut punch meant to squeeze out unsuspecting tears, but rather a brilliant and meaningful slow revelation that is key to the film’s core ideas and values. Without it, Arrival likely wouldn’t be as vital of a film as it is.
And Arrival is most certainly a vital time for our day and age. It asks big questions, but the answers it provides are meant for each of us, speaking to what is truly meaningful in life. What begins as a contemplation of our roles in the bigger universe ends as an affirmation of the beauty of each life. In both its large and small elements, Arrival is gorgeous, essential sci-fi film making.