What would be the appropriate response as a global community if the existence of extraterrestrials made itself known after coming to earth? It’s not necessarily a groundbreaking premise in the science fiction genre though certainly draws enough attention to tell a unique story that hasn’t been explored yet. There are plenty of current films for director Denis Villeneuve to take inspiration from – making his way into the genre with Arrival. But unlike Independence Day or War of the Worlds, Villeneuve’s vision for earths encounter with the unknown is more cerebral and thought provoking instead of showing strength in arms and invasion.
As a filmmaker, Villeneuve crafts his story with a slow drawn-out pace told in a non-linear manner. Just like with Christopher Nolan and his fascination with time manipulation, Denis doesn’t go from point A to point B. Along the narrative there are flashbacks, flash forwards and pit stops that all make their way to the destination at some point or another. Does it all make sense? Not necessarily nor does it need to be understood. Villeneuve leaves room for the mind to wonder while not explicitly giving anything away. I don’t mind that the screenplay written by Eric Heisserer based on Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life isn’t straight and narrow, it’s told in a way that makes sense for the story at hand.
After experiencing a personal tragedy, linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is recruited to make contact with one of twelve extraterrestrial spacecrafts that have made contact all over the globe. Her mission given to her by Colonel G. T. Weber (Forest Whitaker) along with physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremey Renner) in Montana is to use language and science to study the aliens and see why they have come to earth. Is it an act of war or strictly exploration? Each nation in which these crafts made contact will share knowledge with one another in hopes of receiving answers.
The aliens, called heptapods, have seven limbs and speak in palindrome phrases with the use of circular symbols. If it wasn’t for Louise’s skill as a linguist, war would break out between the humans and their guests.
Leading the way in Arrival is a powerful performance by Amy Adams. She brings a child-like wonder and imagination to Louise in coming up with different ways to get the answers that Colonel Weber seeks. Adams plays the role with sincerity never once losing touch with reality as she discovers how to communicate with Abbot and Costello (named by Ian). How else would you speak to an alien race that has zero idea of understanding of your native language? Language plays a large part in how we express ourselves, it’s the foundation for basic communication and understanding. Ian would argue that Science holds more significance in communication that language and he may be right but the point of view in this story focuses on Louise and language.
Arrival takes the path of reality rather than fantastical. The events that unfold and how humans would respond is true to our nature. Getting the necessary answers while sharing knowledge with other nations while not immediately resorting to violence and avoiding conflict would be the smart way of handling the unknown. Of course, there would be groups on both sides – those paranoids for war and those protesting war while preaching peace.
Several of the best directors working have taken their vision to the science fiction drama. No doubt Villeneuve is one of the best working directors today. Ridley Scott has the Alien franchise &The Martian, Christopher Nolan has Interstellar, Steven Spielberg has E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Close Encounters of the Third Kind & War of the Worlds (remake) and James Cameron has Avatar. Arrival easily is among the best in the genre that has breathtaking visual effects, though on the minimum side since it’s a human centric story, and gorgeous cinematography from Bradford Young that uses the Montana landscape to his advantage.
The story is told from three prospective point-of-views. One from a military point of view, one from a scientific point of view and one from a language and linguist point of view. Each with their own motivations and agenda’s even if the focus is on language. Villeneuve leaves it up to the viewer to understand the other two without diving deep into how Weber or Donnelly views the situation. War should never be the first response when contacting alien lifeform.
Coming in at a hair under 2 hours, Arrival tells a story about love and loss, friendship and most importantly bravery. The non-linear storytelling format leaves much more to be desired for more story but Villeneuve teases us with just enough to leave our brains full and our stomachs satisfied. Amy Adams gives one of the best performances of her career with solid supporting roles coming from Renner and Whitaker. Lack of action is made up for in tension with each session pushing humans closer to distrust and conflict but never fully exploring that route. Instead, Villeneuve uses the environment to build momentum as an imaginary clock is ticking down.
Written By: Eric Heisserer
Directed By: Denis Villeneuve
Music By: Johann Johannsson
Cinematography: Bradford Young
Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Tzi Ma
Release Date: November 11, 2016
Running Time: 1 Hour 56 Minutes
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 94%
My Score: 4.5 out of 5
Based On: Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang