Summary: The aliens have come, descending on our planet in twelve spots with no signal of their intentions. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is a Lingustics professor who’s brought on board by the US Military Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker). Working in tandem with mathematician Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), they struggle to decipher the alien language and reckon with their purpose before the world erupts into chaos and war.
I didn’t know what I was going to be right now. I’m only glad Arrival was here for it.
Every thought I have right now is muddled. Not just the difficulty of this film, though there’s still kind of a shock to have seen a marquee science fiction film with this much in its brain. The world took a serious blow this week and this is the first time I’ve seen a movie since then. Movies, for me, are a therapy, a prayer. An art that sends up a clarion call begging us to be better by showing another way. Naive? Oh hell yes.
But then remember that Arrival is asking who we are right now too and is using the power of sci-fi and the trappings of film form to try its best to grapple with what it might take for us as humanity to come together. It’s the question that’s plagued us for generations of science fiction storytelling and it’s a story that, as we stand on a brink, we desperately need to make our attempt to grapple with.
Arrival is a difficult story for a lot of reasons. Partially because it is so dense in its storytelling. The less you know, the better, but this is a movie that deals with the way language shapes our thinking, international politics, the finer points of how aliens would appear to us, and the very conception of time itself.
Yet the movie never feels overstuffed or as though it underserves any piece of its whole. Writer Eric Heisserer gives this movie a tight, propulsive feel that never lingers on any one part for too long but never feels as though it’s giving a shallow dive. Every concept serves a part of a larger and more human whole, a picture of what we are and could be.
The secret of Arrival is that for all its smarts, it’s about human emotion at its core. Its concepts are deeply couched in what it means to be alive for a very brief time and how to deal with passage. Arrival is a heady sci-fi picture, but it’s one that’s designed to hit you squarely in the heart.
Which for all its machinations and twists (which fortunately never overwhelm the storytelling), Arrival’s biggest surprise is director Denis Villeneuve telling such an emotional story. Even his most crushing stories up until now were told through violence and despair, a sort of nihilistic overwhelming. Arrival’s emotional core is warm and about letting yourself be washed over by what’s happening. For every bit of distancing Sicario took, Arrival brings you in closer.
Much of that is helped by nascent cinematographer extraordinaire Bradford Young. Villeneuve is a surgically precise director, never letting a moment go longer or shorter than he needs to and one that is so precise that it’s the minor modulations that ultimately shape his film. Where previous collaborator Deakins emphasized inky shadows and stark reality, Young gives emphasis to the cold glow of the technology and a Malickian wonder to the world. There’s a real power and awe to the proceedings here, as we might really feel in the presence of something greater.
Much more is on Amy Adams’ extraordinary lead performance. While players like Whitaker and Renner and Michael Stuhlbarg are supporting well, this is Adams’ show, the center of it all. She makes Louise Banks a powerful central character, a role model for navigating difficult situations and charging in head first. Adams gives her a toughness that never feels unearned.
There’s so much I want to talk about with Arrival and yet so little I can ultimately reveal. I want to give you the opportunity to let it unfold before you. Instead, I want a simple plea.
Art is healing. It is not always the solution, it’s not the cure. But it can begin to patch things up. Arrival posits something about humanity. That we can come together, and that at some point in the future, we might be able to put our differences aside for everyone’s sake. That the moments that define our story begin now, even if we don’t know why. Right now, that is a message that needs to be heard. Arrival is a film of hope, and a beautifully constructed one at that.
Give it your time, give it your heart. It’ll be worth both.