Arrival is cinema I crave – a thought-provoking, somber yet stylish, and thoroughly cerebral piece of storytelling within one of my favorite milieus, and produced independently of the major studios, thus feeling resolutely unconcerned with satisfying endless rounds of notes and enduring creative compromises that could have potentially sabotaged the crux of the piece as well as the emotional wallop it delivers well after the fade to black. Telling a legitimate story about actual people rather than CGI/spandex superheroes, the writing favors pragmatic decision-making and reactions, instead of going for the bombastic or over the top. The filmmakers have concocted a narrative that weaves a scholarly sense of linguistics into its eerie, otherworldly implications, which makes the film stand out even more. Hot-shot director Denis Villeneuve (Incendies, Prisoners, Enemy, Sicario, the upcoming Blade Runner 2049) and genre specialist screenwriter Eric Heisserer (this past summer’s surprise horror hit Lights Out) have retooled the original short story by author Ted Chiang into an intelligent science fiction tale that not only intelligently explores what first contact with an extraterrestrial species would most likely resemble, but also contains a full dose of the mind-bending and unexpected.
I wouldn’t dream of spoiling anything about this film, as it was my top choice to see for the rest of the year, but I will state that my seriously inflated expectations were easily met if not surpassed. The brilliant Amy Adams (one of my favorite on-screen talents) plays an emotionally guarded college professor reeling from the death of her young child and separation from her husband. She’s a master of various languages, someone who can decipher various dialects at a moment’s notice, so it’s only natural that she gets recruited by the government in an effort to communicate with some recently landed aliens. They’ve arrived in 12 seemingly random spots on Earth, in oval-shaped hovering monoliths that sit just above the ground (or water), with a door opening every 18 hours so that teams of scientists can attempt to speak with the ship’s occupants. Jeremy Renner is sly and compelling as always as Adams’ tack-sharp sidekick, Forest Whitaker turned in reliably strong work as a top military commander, and Michael Stuhlbarg brought just the right amount of realistic hostility that a stressed out CIA agent might be projecting during a once-in-a-lifetime situation such as this.
Heisserer’s script perfectly balanced the need for the audience to connect with Adams’ psychologically fraught character as well as our demand for something new and exciting, and because Villeneuve is such a strong image maker with a tremendous feel for mood, texture, and atmosphere, every shot inside the ship is goose-bump inducing and always photo real. The film has been given a smoky and full-bodied visual sheen by rising star cinematographer Bradford Young (A Most Violent Year, Selma, Pawn Sacrifice), who has an absolutely tremendous eye behind the camera. The creepy, almost mournful score by Johann Johannsson feels oh-so-right in every single moment, both big and small, while the final act really sticks the landing, offering up visceral excitement which feeds into the story rather than overtaking it with needless special effects. The cold and mysterious alien ships provide adequate menace and ample intrigue, with some fantastic special effects work employed in a few key sequences; the less you know going in about the specifics the more fun this trip will be.
Villeneuve has been a director-on-fire of late, tackling various genres and injecting all of his work with the same sense of smarts and polish that Christopher Nolan brings to the table; he’s ready to bust out at the seams and I have a feeling that Blade Runner 2049 is going to turn heads. Arrival certainly feels spiritually connected, to some degree, to Nolan’s magnum opus Interstellar. Less overtly showy than Nolan’s exquisite cosmic journey so as a result more subtle and nuanced, Arrival instead has been designed to consistently upend most of your expectations; not only do the final moments send you out of the theater still trying to fully process everything that you’ve just seen, but it’s all been crafted with a sense of quiet elegance, both in Heisserer’s emotionally involving dialogue and Villeneuve’s sublime sense of visual aesthetics. Arrival is the movie I’ve been waiting to see for a long time, a thoughtful meditation on first contact that never forgets the human element at its core, uninterested in blowing stuff up just because it can, as fascinated by the unknown as it is rooted in something universal and important.