Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival is an intellectually rigorous science fiction film that’ll make you cry. That’s no easy feat. Most hard science fiction films are full of ideas, but light on emotion and don’t even try for catharsis. They want to dazzle our brains, not our hearts. The king of hard sci-fi, 2001: A Space Odyssey, instills the viewer with awe, but its most emotional character is an artificial intelligence program. It’s not a three-kleenex weepie.
Only a few films, like Robert Zemeckis’s Contact and Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, manage to be about big ideas while also touching us in more intimate ways. We can now put Arrival alongside those two films as a rare example of hard science-fiction that looks beyond the human pale while also fundamentally being about the choices we make in our lives and the reasons we have for living. It’s a beautiful film, as formally precise as you’d expect from Villeneuve, but as touching and even transcendent as a Terrence Malick film.
The central figure of Arrival is Amy Adams’ Louise Banks. After 12 alien spacecrafts arrive around the globe, the US Army recruits Louise to learn how to communicate with the aliens so they can determine their motives for coming to Earth. She’s paired with Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), an astrophysicist, and together they strive to learn to communicate with the visitors before rival nations like China aggressively act to defend the planet.
As Louise begins to learn the aliens’ language, she starts to comprehend the world differently. Memories of her daughter’s life and untimely death begin to haunt her more frequently. Based on Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life,” Arrival posits the idea that language shapes how we think. The thesis goes that instead of merely being a tool for communication, language actually shapes our reality. Instead of manipulating narration and tense like the short story does, Villeneuve accomplishes this argument by manipulating cinematic language. Flashbacks, sound design, and repetitive editing all add up to a grand statement about life late in the film.
Aside from its intellectual and emotional heft, Arrival is simply an excellent formal work. It is terrifically shot by Selma cinematographer Bradford Young and again utilizes the audio prowess of composer Jóhann Jóhannsson and sound editor Sylvain Bellemare. The introductory scenes of the alien spacecraft are perfect examples of Villeneuve’s craft.
Villeneuve thrives off tension. Like in Sicario and Prisoners, every new shot in Arrival extends the tension of the last. His camera is almost always moving, slowly pushing in on the actors and subconsciously twisting our nerves. In the early minutes of the film, Villeneuve hides any clear view of the alien ships. Instead, he builds up anticipation as we’re left to watch characters staring gobsmacked at hidden screens depicting this historic event. Only when Louise is escorted by helicopter to the military base in Montana beneath the craft do we see it in its entirety. In an extreme wide shot the helicopter approaches the spacecraft, which looks like a gargantuan black egg, halved vertically. Mist clouds the air and Jóhannsson’s horns blare out a pulsing tone. The moment is awe-inspiring.
Later, when Louise and Ian board the craft, Villeneuve shows every step in their journey from base to craft. He shows them getting immunization boosters, gearing up in hazmat suits, and loading into trucks. When they get to the ship, the camera seems to crawl across the stark walls of the alien vessel, slowly pushing towards the blinding white light at the top. He stretches out the introduction as long as possible. As the characters use a hydraulic lift to enter the ship the gravity starts to shift and they find themselves able to walk vertically up the walls. In one of the year’s most remarkable shots, the characters jump from a standing position on the lift and shift midair to a standing position on the wall, perpendicular to the lift. Villeneuve doesn’t cut in the midst of the jump. Instead, the gravity reorients in the midst of the camera move, making the effect all the more stunning. We’re left dazzled and wondering how they possibly could’ve pulled it off.
Arrival is full of this kind of precise, stunning filmmaking. It’s a film made by a master craftsman full of ideas that are genuinely profound. If you’re able to go along with its central conceit, Arrival will prove of the year’s most rewarding films.
9 out of 10
Arrival (2016, USA)
Directed by Denis Villeneuve; written by Eric Heisserer based on “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang; starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Tzi Ma, Mark O’Brien.