Too often, when something is labeled “science fiction”, it often just means “set in space.” This is especially true of film, and while action/sci-fi and horror/sci-fi have their place and are often quite enjoyable, they often obscure the wonder, metaphor, and exploration of human potential that is at the core of so many of science-fiction’s classic works. Such a work is Arrival, the new film by director Denis Villeneuve, which engages the mind as much as it does the heart and the soul.
The film opens with the arrival of twelve enormous spaceships hovering over seemingly random parts of the world. In Montana, the military has set up camp near one of them, and in an effort to understand and converse with the aliens inside them, they employ brilliant linguistics professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and the equally talented mathematician Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner). But while Banks and Donnelly methodically work on discovering the aliens’ language and purpose on Earth, others seem more intent on preemptively eliminating any possible threat the aliens might hold, threatening to ignite a global catastrophe.
WARNING! MAY CONTAIN MILD SPOILERS!
Through the looking glass.
Screenwriter Eric Heisserer had been trying for many years to pitch a script based on the award-winning novella Story Of Your Life by Ted Chiang without success before he met Villeneuve, and it’s easy to see why it was such a hard sell. Arrival is slow, contemplative exploration of humanity in the vein of 2001: A Space Odyssey or the films of Andrei Tarkovsky. It has an organic drama and tension that slowly and almost imperceptibly evolves without the use of set pieces or action sequences. It’s a two-hour meditation on the future of the world disguised as a film about first contact with aliens.
And it’s brilliant.
Villeneuve’s visual style is a perfect match for the story’s core tenets and flow. He fills the screen with images of elegiac grace that slowly draw the viewer’s gaze closer and closer. Even the negative spaces in his frames feel purposeful and significant. At the same time, he uses a relatively limited and muted palette, relying instead on composition to make his images come alive. He knows when to show and when to tell, and he wisely holds off on giving us a full, detailed view of the alien visitors until the very end of the film.
All this ink and not a pen in sight.
In the same manner, Amy Adams’ performance as Banks is a work of quiet and purposefully limited volume. Her Banks is a reserved woman, beholden to patterns, and not prone to drama. Her understanding of language is so much based in the brain that she has a hard time connecting with others on an emotional level. Like the tension of the film itself, Banks slowly transforms her patterns and structures in a manner so subtle that it’s hard to see the steps of the transition. Adams is an amazingly expressive actress of great depth, but here she plays her role close to the chest, letting Banks’ character unfold naturally and realistically. Banks’ awe at her first meaningful contact with the aliens is a moment of almost silent joy that Adams makes infectious and inspiring.
The focus is so supremely on Banks’ story that we often do not get to see much of the other characters aside from Jeremy Renner’s Donnelly, whose performance is just as captivatingly subtle but has distinct notes of humor and wonder. In fact, Villeneuve often keeps the camera just behind Adams’ shoulder as Banks moves from location to location. As a result, we almost only get to see events as Banks experiences them, meaning that the rest of the cast gets little screen time. It’s a shame, because Forest Whitaker’s skeptical Army colonel and Michael Stuhlbarg’s hawkish Agent Halpern ground the film in a solid reality as opposed to Banks and Donnelly, who live on theory.
Adams and the Giant Egg.
But at the same time, it’s Banks and Donnelly’s theories that give the film its pulse and its energy. Arrival is an exploration of communication and how the language one uses can change they way they view the world. Beyond that, it isn’t ever just what is said but how it's said, with logic and emotion holding equal sway. Even the evocative score by Jóhann Jóhannsson follows suit, comprised of tonal drones and singers who vocalize only syllables, and never recognizable words. It requires the listener to hear and understand everything in the sound bed including the silence and to glean meaning through intonation alone.
In the third act of the film, Villeneuve invisibly shifts the energy of the film from one of contemplation to activity. The climax of the film almost plays like a test of the audience, seeing if the information they received in the prior two acts can be combined and utilized for a greater understanding of the work as a whole. And even the best of us may find ourselves trying to unpack and sort out the climax afterward and never come close to a full understanding of it.
Get out your secret decoder ring.
That’s the beauty of the film, though. Like so many classic works of science fiction, it poses as many questions as it answers, and it implies that the answers are out there if we seek them hard enough. It’s a film that demands to be re-seen almost as soon as it’s finished. That’s an arrival that’s more than welcome.
FBOTU Score: 9 out of 10 / A