Dir. Denis Villeneuve; Amy Adams
[4 out of 4 stars]
The opening shot of Arrival (2016) revels in darkness. Director Denis Villeneuve glides his camera forward through a shadowed and symmetrical room, savoring the palette of blacks and blues that define it. These frames act as an effective metric for the rest of the film, for shadows present the question of what lies within, and Arrival concerns itself with shining a light on such shadows. Written by Eric Heisserer, the story of Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and her battle with the contents of her own mind is a triumph of writing, acting, and directing which signals the arrival of a new approach to science-fiction filmmaking.
The story of an alien touchdown on earth is an extensively well-tread arc. Yet, this story feels exceptional. The screenplay presents a simple question which has, to the best of my knowledge, never been posed by a movie: if aliens were to arrive, what would the process of learning their language actually look like? Enter Louise Banks, a world-renowned linguist. She is recruited by the Army to attempt communication with the newly arrived visitors. This narrative originality is paired with exceptional visual inventiveness. Villeneuve and his production team design alien ships, organisms, and alphabets that resemble nothing which has come in the genre before. It recognizes the multitude of alien films, with shots that nod to classics such as The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), but it is not constrained by past visual language. Even when it enters genre tropes, such as the rash military wanting to attack as they get impatient, it feels different than its cinematic ancestors. It is a testament to Villeneuve’s skill as a director, finding new ways to photograph alien contact, which helps set this apart.
Denis Villeneuve has been making movies since his 1998 debut August 32nd on Earth. However, it was not until the release of Incendies (2010), and an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, that he was recognized as a devastatingly talented artist. Following that breakthrough, his filmography has shown a honing of style that reaches a new level in Arrival, the successes of which can be seen in its precursors Prisoners (2013) and Sicario (2015). Such development has, not coincidentally, coincided with collaboration with up and coming writers. Heisserer is no different.
Making his bones in horror with credits including Nightmare on Elm Street (2010) and Lights Out (2016), it is easy to see how the genre plays in here. Horror requires a perversion of a norm, and Arrival is no different with its up-ending of normal life. The real feat of the screenplay though is that it conveys an enormous amount of information, from academic vocabulary to military intelligence measures without feeling boring. It weaves plot development with witty moments to establish a methodical rhythm that nonetheless never settles into monotony. In addition, the exposition is left almost entirely to visuals, often paired with substantial character development. Louise’s introduction functions in such a way. When Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) comes to recruit her, we are shown her office: ordered but cluttered, peppered with awards and degrees, visually establishing her as a force in her own right. On the opposite, Weber appears unimpressed and shows no recognition of the personal touches in the office, characterizing him as a rigid individual even as he attempts to convince Louise to join. A scene like this in a lesser screenplay handled by a lesser director would be dull and one-dimensional, but here it shimmers with intrigue.
Nonetheless, such a dialogue driven screenplay requires a remarkable performance to succeed. Amy Adams provides this and more as Louise Banks. As the story develops, placing her battle with the male soldiers and engineers beside the increasing number of her memories (of which there will be no more mention to avoid any unfortunate spoilers), we see this world almost exclusively through her eyes. Adams has been remarkable before, in films such as The Fighter (2010) and American Hustle (2013), but she has never been given the opportunity to have a film orbit around her. There is a short scene where Weber confronts her about the United States governments fear of the aliens. Banks tells a story about British explorers landing in Australia. It is concerned with the word “kangaroo,” and the humor of linguistic misunderstandings. It is less than a minute long, but within it, Adams balances the humor, intensity, and resolve of a woman asserting her ability to a man who doubts she is up to the task. It is truly a shame that the Academy failed to nominate what is inarguably Adam’s finest piece of cinematic performance, but such a failure does nothing to lessen the sheer power of what she brings to the screen.
Arrival avoids this thematic pitfall by viscerally committing to one identity, no matter how difficult the climax may be. At its core, the film is only nominally concerned with its science-fiction. This is not to dismiss it, for as I mentioned above it is the genre at both its most effective and most fresh. However, the beauty of the best science fiction is that it leaves the fantastic behind when it must move on to the business of emotion. Blade Runner (1982), for all its world building, was most concerned with what makes humanity function. With 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Stanley Kubrick challenged the audience to think of what such humanity was, is, and could become. It is for this that Arrival, and its devastating meditation on the power of possibility, achieves a level of cinematic distinction that will have me returning to it for years to come.