Show Me What You Got
Arrival is yet another stellar example of sci-fi that doesn’t need to rely on explosive spectacle or a rich, intergalactic universe, instead offering a more pensive and cerebral experience that’s reinforced by some excellent performances and beautiful cinematography.
The story of Arrival centers on Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), whose expert linguistic skills become more than necessary when twelve alien craft touch down around the planet. It soon becomes a race against time as Louise and her team do what they can to decipher the visitors’ language. This linguistic approach to a first contact scenario is really interesting, as it forces the audience to open their minds to the possibilities of life beyond our planet.
It reminded me of a conversation with a friend I once had, where we speculated on the very nature of extraterrestrial beings- beings that evolved from entirely different evolutionary timelines. What would they look like? How would they be? We’re so limited in our understanding of life that the possibilities of how life exists are a complete mystery. This is the kind of hurdle our protagonists are faced with; how does one communicate with a being that perceives reality in a completely different way? Can an understanding even possibly be achieved?
Despite the heady concepts at play, the film is anchored by a great writing and a standout performance by Amy Adams. Her character is rigid and calculated, approaching language “like a mathematician,” and yet none of that keeps you from becoming emotionally invested in her story. Adams is entirely believable as a (somewhat) ordinary person interacting with a mysterious and imposing alien lifeform for the first time, and watching her make progress in teaching them our language (and vice versa) is both fun and intriguing.
Louise’s partner, scientist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), is a very likeable support, and brings the life and energy that Louise’s personality is missing. He has a lot of great lines and moments throughout the film, and Renner delivers a charismatic and endearing performance. He also makes great use of the film’s sole F-bomb.
Forest Whitaker delivers a solid performance as Col. Weber, the military leader in charge of the operation at the Montana contact site. He’s your typical army commander, but Whitaker does a good job at relaying the sense that he’s clearly in over his head with this situation. With his knowledge of war and the human condition, you can tell that he’s just waiting for something to go wrong, though thankfully that doesn’t stop him from putting his faith in Louise and Donnelly.
Cinematically-speaking, this is easily director Denis Villeneuve’s (Prisoners, Sicario) best work so far. The pacing is wonderful, bouncing between anxious anticipation and mystifying intrigue as the purpose of the visitors starts to become clear. The presentation of this first contact scenario also feels incredibly realistic, despite the inexplicable arrival of the odd craft. Bradford Young’s cinematography is also great, with the film capturing some truly awe-inspiring moments, coupled with mysterious, dream-like sequences that all build together to create a captivating full-circle story.
The film’s real strength lies in its writing, however. Arrival not only delivers a captivating sci-fi experience but also deals with the larger themes of existence, metaphysics, and the human condition. Mankind was not expecting the arrival of these aliens, and their enigmatic interaction with humanity only creates further mistrust amongst the masses. It’s easy to believe that humanity would react to this sort of situation so violently, given our propensity for violence towards each other. It’s a bit depressing to realize how much our species would react out of fear of the unknown rather than make strides to come together in an effort to understand.
Without delving too far into spoiler territory, the nature of the aliens is very interesting. The way they perceive reality is entirely different from our own, allowing for the film to evolve into a kind of thought experiment when the leads try to communicate with them. The sessions are ethereal and cerebral, stimulating your curiosity as you begin to wrap your head around how the aliens communicate. It’s a very unique aspect of the film, and it’s refreshing to not see an alien just speak through telepathy.
Arrival is definitely worth the ticket price; if you’re a fan of either sci-fi or mystery, you’ll find plenty to love in this atmospheric think piece. With plenty of suspense, intrigue and philosophical themes at play, the film delivers an experience similar to Close Encounters of The Third Kind or Moon. With great performances, excellent cinematic quality, and a thought-provoking, open-ended conclusion, Arrival both entertains and mystifies. It’s yet another brilliant example of the storytelling power of the sci-fi genre.