Arrival (2016)

Denis Villeneuve is one of my favorite directors currently working.  He is not exactly obscure, but he is far from a household name too.  He made Sicario, my #1 film of 2015.  He is creative, inventive, and his films are grown-up and are the kind of material that is richly rewarding, but does not necessarily lend itself to wide audiences who just want to be entertained.  His latest film, Arrival, is not exception.  Based on the fact that Villeneuve was the director, it clocked in at #4 on my list of 20 Most Anticipated Films of 2016, when it was still called Story of Your Life. Alien invasion films are nothing new. Villeneuve is not reinventing the wheel with this film, but what he is doing here is excelling as a director and creating another compelling, expertly crafted film.

The film open with Louise Banks (Amy Adams) recalling memories of her daughter being born, playing as a child, growing up, and tragically dying of as a teenager of a rare disease.  When twelve mysterious alien aircraft touch down across the globe, Louise, who is a renowned linguist and had done previous translating for the military, is called upon by the US Army Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to lead an American team that is interacting with the aircraft that touched down in Montana. Heading up the science division of the crew is theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner).  They enter the alien craft, which opens every 18 hours to let them in, and establish contact with two cephalopod-like aliens affectionately nicknamed Abbott and Costello by Ian.  Together, they attempt to bridge the barrier between them and the aliens, trying to discern their intentions as the rest of the world goes into an increasingly high state of uneasiness over the arrival of these ships and no answers are immediately forthcoming from the various governments around the world, and the threat of a preemptive strike is floated by countries like China and Russia.

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The film is a sci-fi drama that gets into the practicality of what first contact with aliens could look like.  There are natural barriers that exist, related to language, biology, and other things.  The film does a great job laying out the potential pitfalls inherent in the language barrier.  Words we use can take on several different meanings and several different words can mean the same thing.  And translating from one language to another complicates those pitfalls, because another person’s understanding of a word may be different than the intent of the word being used.  Louise lays this out very early in the film when she tells Col. Weber to ask a colleague of hers who the Sanskrit word for “war.”

It does a great job in grounding the events in the practical, which helps to lay the groundwork for the fiction aspect of its science fiction.  The aliens are like giant squids that walk on their arms.  They “speak” but not in a way that Louise is able to comprehend.  The transition over to written word is a crucial turning point in the progress of learning between both sides and discerning their intentions.

The story explores several interesting themes.  Related to the aspect of barriers or divisions is the importance of communication in bridging those divisions and overcoming those barriers.  With arrivals all across the globe, several other countries are interacting with these crafts.  All of the countries are in communication with one another, but with some countries being more reactive than others, complications naturally arise and communications between the humans and the aliens breaks down, but so does communication between nations as uncertainty escalates.  A few similar films have ended up making their films be “movies with a message” calling for world unity that ends up taking away from the overall quality of the film, because the movie ends up being more about the message than the story.  The Abyss and 2010: The Year We Make Contact come immediately to mind.

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Thankfully, Villeneuve does not go down this path and Arrival is more similar to Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Contact and even The Day the Earth Stood Still.  Finally, one of the other ideas the film deals with is what is known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which essentially says that the structure of a language begins to affect the perception of the speaker.  As Louise interacts more with Abbott and Costello and to learn their language she begins to realize that they experience certain aspects of reality differently from humans, which starts to affect Louise’s perception.

Amy Adams is in the lead performance and it is some of her best work.  Generally speaking, I find her work almost always top notch, but she hasn’t been given many vehicles to be the unquestioned top billing of a film, let alone a drama.  But she hits it out of the park here.  And Renner, an actor she has worked with before, is great in a supporting role as Ian, working alongside Louise as the head of the science wing of the team.  They’re the two main players, and Whitaker along with Michael Stuhlbarg as a CIA agent, have important, but smaller roles as the authority figures in charge of the project.  Whitaker’s Col. Weber is essentially the middle management role of having to go between what Louise and Ian, as the experts, want and what the higher ups want.  Stuhlbarg’s Agent Halpern is another potential pitfall that could have been a villainous caricature of a government stooge, but is actually smart and is never put in the position of being the “villain” of the story.

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Villeneuve puts the film together expertly.  There is an assurance of everything being tied together in a way that reminds me of Christopher Nolan’s work; you trust that the director has a firm grasp on the delivery of the story.  It features great cinematography.  There are a few shots in Louise’s home looking out big windows out onto a lake that mirror shots inside the alien craft in the room where they interact with Abbott and Costello through a glass protective barrier.  Also, the story jumps around as Louise experiences recurring memories of her daughter throughout the film, but it’s all structured well to fit together perfectly and not be a distraction.  If there is any complaint with the film, it would probably be in regards to the way the story is resolved, which in they eyes of some would be a deus ex machina  device.  To me, it felt a little bit like an all-too-convenient tool, but not nearly enough to undermine the film.

Overall, Arrival is the kind of sci-fi that I wish we got more of in movies.  While it may be easy to label it a “cerebral” or “smart” sci-fi, that doesn’t prevent it from being entertaining.  It had no trouble keeping me invested in the story it was telling.  It deftly balances the sci-fi with emotional drama.  It’s ambitious and bold in telling its story too and carrying through on some big themes and does not shy away from some of the melancholy that it courts.  There has been some talk that the theme of unity and cooperation is especially relevant given the discourse surrounding the American election this year, but the film is never too preachy about this and handles every theme it touches on with delicacy.  Arrival is a film that is sure to pop up in my end of the year rankings.  It’s one of the best films of the year and another great piece of filmmaking from Denis Villeneuve.

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Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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