Directed by Denis Villeneueve
Written by Eric Heisserer
Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forrest Whitaker, Mark O’Brien and Tzi Ma
Films with aliens go one of two ways: either the aliens are benevolent (The Day the Earth Stood Still, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind) or they are aggressive (everything else). In Arrival, the world is faced with an alien incursion, the nature of which they do not know but rather than just start shooting, they attempt diplomatic relations and an attempt to understand their language while teaching them ours so there can be an understanding, all in an effort to avoid a misunderstanding that leads to death.
When the 12 ships arrive, they are not in militarily strategic places, but rather in areas where there is little to no population, seemingly to cause the least damage. Skilled linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) are called in to head the communications team on the ship that landed in Montana (the only one in the U.S.). Louise is suffering from a tragedy, the death of her only child, and throws herself into her work trying to learn an alien language. The other sites are connected via satellite so they can all share their information, except the Russians, who are trying to keep their secrets.
The marvelous thing about Eric Heisserer’s script, based on Ted Chiang’s story “Story of Your Life” is the way he weaves in Louise’s flashbacks to her life as a single mother and the love she had (has) for her child. These flashbacks intensify as she progresses in cracking the alien’s language, suggesting there’s more to them than just PTSD. Heisserer gives us good characterization without going too deep into character, giving us what we need for the story. Often times, this isn’t enough, but here, because Louise and Ian are thrown together to work on this critical situation, it makes sense because there wouldn’t be a lot of time for getting to know one another, and so we are in that situation as well, learning what we can about them but focusing on the work. The screenplay takes its time in unfolding the progress and just as there is a breakthrough, crisis strikes and China is set on attacking the ship in their region. Heisserer uses this to ramp up Louise’s obsession with the language and pushes the film to a really beautiful ending that involves a unique perspective on the understanding of time.
Helming the screenplay is rising star Denis Villeneueve, who directed the highly acclaimed films Enemy, Prisoners and last year’s Siccario. Villeneueve sidelines his usual kinetic approach for a more contemplative one here, echoing Terrence Malick more than anyone (except maybe Spielberg in some parts). His slow and deliberative approach is well suited here, drawing out some sequences, letting us become enveloped in the unraveling of the mystery of the aliens and the unraveling of Louise, until it all snaps back into clear focus. He mutes his color palate for a lot of the movie, making it kind of a flat blue tint outside the ship and a vivid black-and-white in color inside the ship, while shifting to warmer yellows and reds during the flashbacks. Each setting, therefore, has its own look that helps set the mood for each scene set in them. It’s not a new technique, but it is underused and highly effective.
Amy Adams serves as a wonderful proxy for us in the film, but she’s so much more. Her nuanced performance allows her to go from grieving and heartbroken one moment and intellectually curious the very next one. Her persistence is what keeps the military at bay while she tries to decipher an entirely new and unique language. Adams is spectacular here (as she so often is), never giving us a reason to doubt Louise’s commitment to the work or to her shattered family. Renner, too, does better work than he’s done in a long time, if ever. The way Ian assists Louise is spectacular, and their collaboration grows into mutual trust as she continues to prove that understanding their language first is better than “throwing a bunch of math problems at them”. Renner’s Ian is open minded enough to take a back seat to Louise, immediately recognizing that her way is the best way.
Another vital aspect of the film is the music, composed by Johann Johannsson. It’s not your typical movie score with full orchestras, sweeping violins and heralding trumpets. Instead, it’s more of a minimalist approach with a lot of bass brass as well as some upper strings, combined with vocals, percussion and what sounds like whale song. It is impressionistic, creating simultaneous feelings of dread and hope, much like Louise, Ian and the rest of the world must feel as this story progresses.
Arrival is a heady, thought-provoking film that does not do much of the work for the audience. It gives you the information you need in dribs and drabs and lets you figure it out with Louise, never giving enough for you to guess the ending (and the ending is mind-boggling). All of this sets up a deliberately paced (some may call it slow), yet exciting and thrilling film. The thrills aren’t from an alien attack or some large-scale action sequence, but in discovery and learning. It is a magnificent film and truly one of the best of the year.