Science fiction is a genre rich with possibility. A story can take place anywhere and be about anything, exploring the human experience through a boundless lens that allows for interstellar travel, time travel, extraterrestrials and more. However, the true strength of science fiction as a genre rests in its ability to use the extreme, the impossible to plumb the depths of the human experience; through extremity, themes are explored in ways that a normal setting would not allow. For years literature has entertained and terrified with countless “hard” sci-fi stories. Unfortunately, given the time-sensitive format of film, cinema has lagged behind in creating an abundance of more cerebral fair. That is not to say that they do not exist; Ex Machina and Interstellar were recently released to wide acclaim, but films like these are in the minority when compared to the number of special-effects driven blockbusters that flood theatres every year. That is why Arrival is so refreshing. It’s a “First Contact” alien story without the space battles or explosions. Instead, its story is propelled by relationships and a powerful message.
The premise is simple: one day twelve enormous space-faring vessels land on Earth. A brilliant linguist named Louise Banks is recruited by the army to attempt to communicate with the beings aboard a ship that has settled in a field in Montana. Along with the help of theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly, Louise meets with the alien life forms and attempts to decipher their complex form of communication as national tensions mount.
To say any more would be an extreme disservice to the incredibly clever way the film is constructed: its characters’ emotional arcs rise in tandem with the intensifying conflict, allowing for a series of events that are at once epic and intimate. Furthermore, the film provides one of the finest protagonists in recent memory. No matter the dire stakes, at the heart of this tale is Louise. Amy Adams turns in one of the best performances of her career, imbuing within Louise a strong moral compass that seems to have been nurtured and developed through her love of language. Communication across the globe is so nuanced and varied that to take any communicative action or perceived communicative action at face value is a mistake; it’s a shallow, surface response that is often as much ego as it is fear and expectation. Louise knows what may be a respectful gesture in one culture may seem like an insult in another; given this unique viewpoint, she approaches communicating with the extraterrestrials as a person seeking to understand them as a species and as a culture, rather than specifically trying to discover what they want from Earth (much to her Army overlords’ displeasure). Adams artfully conveys Louise’s intense curiosity, wonder, and empathy, as well as her extreme frustration as events spiral out of her control. Perhaps the film’s greatest achievement is contrasting Louise’s extreme empathy and desire for communication with the ugly, fearful tribalism to which much of humanity seems to revert in times of extreme crisis. For Louise, communication is life, it is what brings people together and allows them to share in the vast possibilities of collected knowledge.
Jeremy Renner ably serves as Adams’ support in the form of Ian Donnelly. In a refreshing twist of gender norms (at least in film), his character is the one off which Louise bounces ideas as well as her frustrations. Though having a tangible effect on the events of the film, this is still very much Louise’s story; yet by making Donnelly the support, Renner is given the opportunity to turn in a performance full of warmth and compassion. Donnelly’s belief in Louise’s abilities and intellect develops alongside the audience’s and the way Renner conveys his growing support of Louise is subtle, yet moving and one of the best parts of an immaculate film.
It may sound like I’m being hyperbolic, but this film is truly excellent. An artful, contemplative science-fiction story that asks from the viewer as much as it gives. Much credit must be paid to director Denis Villeneuve’s nuanced, thoughtful approach to film – he directed Sicario, also a sizzling slow-burn and one of my favorite films from last year – but one would be remiss to forget the work of Eric Heisserer, who wrote the script based on Ted Chiang’s short, “Story of Your Life.” A passion project written on spec (with no assignment; no money up-front), Heisserer’s love for the source material and story is clear from the first moments of the film. The dialogue is sparse, yet realistic; all emotional beats are organic and earned. Heisserer’s written work is only strengthened by Villeneuve’s directing style, which tends more toward art-house than blockbuster. I must also commend Villeneuve on his dedication to silence; like one of my other favorite directors, Nicolas Winding Refn, Villeneuve lets his films breathe, lets characters look at one another and allows for the actors’ talent to shine through in those quiet moments. Given his incredible success with this film, I can’t wait to see what he does with his next project, the sequel to Blade Runner.
Lensed by Bradford Young (Selma, A Most Violent Year), Arrival is beautiful. Shots of nature and architecture are juxtaposed with the absolutely foreign appearance of the alien vessels and the extraterrestrials themselves. Memory flashes are interspersed throughout the film, shot in such a manner as to express the intimacy of remembered moments: beautiful, idyllic fragments that hit incredibly hard. All of these images are accompanied by a wondrous, sometimes quiet, sometimes pulsing score by Jóhann Jóhannsson, who has quickly become one of my favorite composers with his varied work in films like Sicario and The Theory of Everything. Also, the design of the alien language, developed by designer Patrice Vermette and artist Martine Bertrand, is beautifully intricate and completely convincing as a millennia-old form of communication.
All this being said, Arrival is a magnificent and oddly timely film. It urges the absolute necessity for communication across cultures and borders; a communication that is not merely surface-level, but born from a genuine desire to understand that which is different and “other.” The film’s plea for empathy is a powerful one, deftly delivered in one of the best film’s I’ve seen in recent memory. I cannot recommend it enough.