Never has the term “thinking man’s science-fiction film” been more accurate than when describing Denis Villeneuve’s latest directorial effort, Arrival. Working from a thoughtful, complex screenplay written by Eric Heisserer – whom I dismissed as a screenwriter capable only of writing middling films based upon other sources in my review of Lights Out – Villeneuve flawlessly uses his trademark slow-roll to make a startling entry into the field of alien invasion cinema.
Villeneuve has picked tremendous actors from Hollywood past and present to star in his adaptation of Ted Chiang’s “The Story of Your Life,” a short piece of fiction originally published in Starlight 2, a collection of Starlight magazine’s best stories from 1998. Imaginative, heavy, and even-keeled acting by Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Tzi Ma nail Arrival to its low-key settings and action, with Villeneuve drawing perfectly lived-in, experienced, and thoughtful performances out of the entire cast.
Again working from existing material, Heisserer has written believable dialogue, actions, and reactions to describe scientists and the military having to deal with 12 extraterrestrial ships landing in various spots around Earth. The story’s simple enough: Doctor of Linguistics Louise Banks (Adams) and theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Renner) are whisked away by Colonel Weber (Whitaker) to try to communicate with one of the dozen alien vessels which has landed in a very picturesque spot in Montana. Using various language and communication techniques, Banks and Donnelly wind up being instruments for not only the military, but for humanity as well as they fumble through rudimentary speech and thought patterns in an effort to get the aliens to state their agenda in landing here.
Arrival works on every level – as a piece of art, as a political statement, as an allegory relating to our own lives – by being cerebral and highlighting our own universal fears. Banks, through whose eyes we view this incident, is written as a meek, yet courageously strong scientist representing the best of us – smart, independent, and possessing a hidden temerity which drives her. Amy Adams breathes this spirit into her performance with every word and every gesture, letting us know that both she and her character are the best person for the job. When contact with the aliens suddenly shifts her off her normal psychological track, we see the struggle in Adams’ eyes and well-spoken body language, staying always within the real and far away from the melodramatic.
Matching her beat-for-beat is Jeremy Renner, who makes us forget all about his popular role as Hawkeye from the Avengers pantheon and settles us down as Banks’ sounding wall. His contributions – both professional and personal – keep Banks centered and humanized, with Renner almost playing the role reserved for females in these kinds of films. Of course, there’s a whole lot more to Donnelly than just being there for Banks; he serves as her mirror, a true partner in every sense of the word.
Throughout the film, we are bounced between the scientists’ discoveries with their alien counterparts, and the military and government agents who serve to keep the film’s urgency. CIA Agent Halpern (Stuhlbarg) is trying to keep control of a situation which is spiraling further and further out of his control, refuting every positive progress Banks and Donnelly make with a retort about global security or by twisting their words out of context, seemingly bent on violent conflict. Tempering both sides is Colonel Weber, who tries to keep the world’s best interests in front of him while trying to appease everyone’s needs. Representing might over right is Chinese military general Shang (Tzi Ma), whose radical interpretations (or misinterpretations) of this new threat may lead to humanity’s extinction.
A lot of this is reflected in the film’s photography and design motifs. We’re constantly shown a doorway made of three crossing beams, as if to represent the bridging of two distinct worlds; in several introduction scenes, the camera pans down from the ceiling, visually emulating and portending the aliens’ descent upon our planet; and we’re treated to a few scenes where a circle is diagonally bisected by a line, either on a drawing or by someone walking across an open college quad. These recurring motifs, either foreshadowing or acting as a metaphor, only further this film’s arthouse sensibilities in a genre noted for its lack of thought or subtlety.
Underpinning all of this is Jóhann Jóhannsson’s moody, symbiotic score which plays between reacting to scenes and setting them up. There’s a terrific piece found in the early third of the film (and reprised again under the closing credits) in which voices and instruments create a cacophony of Morse Code-like notes, weaving in, out, and around each other to form cohesion out of chaos. When combined with Bradford Young’s stunning photography – especially the establishing shots of the Montana countryside with wispy clouds spilling over the mountains – the film’s magic shifts into another gear and creates another layer of mystique and drama.
Almost a certainty on critics’ year-end top ten lists, Arrival may not hit all the notes a casual filmgoer might seek. This is not an action film, nor is it a horror; it is a thinking man’s vision of what might happen should visitors from another world suddenly alight on Earth. There are no overhyped dramatics, which Villeneuve strictly eschews, nor are there lasers or bloody gunshot wounds. It is a tense, smart, and solemn meditation upon that which makes us human and how we can best represent ourselves to others. Arrival needs no 3D or large IMAX screen to deliver its message; it simply needs your eyes and your minds.