Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Screened at Fantastic Fest 2016
Following a string of critically lauded films as Prisoners, Enemy, and Sicario, Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve returns with his sci-fi drama Arrival, arguably his most accessible and moving film to date. While Villeneuve flirted with mind-bending genre elements with his slow burn psychological thriller Enemy, he instead moves to embrace a more lucid genre approach with Arrival, all the while maintaining a rock solid emotional core of a story that will resonate long after the credits roll.
Arrival‘s story is a simple, but deeply engaging one, based on Ted Chiang’s short story “Story of Your Life”: 12 mysterious spacecrafts have suddenly materialized in various locations all around the globe. With no clear sign as to what the alien visitors want or why they have come to Earth, governments around the world begin making attempts to communicate with these visitors. Stateside, the United States military recruits linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Adam) to aid in their communication efforts, with the assistance of mathematician Dr. Ian Donnelly (Renner). As Louise further immerses herself in her work with the visitors, slowly learning their means of communication, she begins to find that there is much more to their visit than anyone else in the world might suspect.
With Arrival, Villeneuve’s masterful hand yet again delivers a film that is equally vulnerable, composed, and uplifting–a beautifully unfolding sci-fi/drama hybrid that feels undeniably timeless by its heartfelt finale. Many will liken the film to Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, which is understandable; it balances its science fiction sensibilities with a touching dramatic thread and features strong performances from its leads. The difference with Arrival, however, lies in its subtlety, which, despite being a fan of Nolan’s film, I felt Interstellar somewhat lacked in its affective elements. While the script from Eric Heisserer is deeply emotional and will no doubt inspire philosophical musings, it is never overwrought or pretentious. That the screenwriter is known primarily for his straightforward horror work (Lights Out, Final Destination 5) makes his delicate hand here all that more impressive.
Additionally, while Villeneuve’s vision feels massive in scope, it is never overcooked, a dual credit to the director’s novel perspectives and to cinematographer Bradford Young’s balanced sense of grandeur and restraint. The shots of the spacecrafts against their various backdrops are particularly stunning, as are the interior scenes involving Louise and the aliens themselves.
There is not much I can say about the course of the film’s narrative without doing potential viewers a disservice, but I will say that Villeneuve masterfully takes a story that is very much about the impact of an alien life form visiting Earth and conveys it in a refreshingly organic and unique way. Amy Adams shines here as the initially cautious, but ultimately resolved Louise, conveying a rich tapestry of often subdued, but powerful–and empathy-inducing–emotion. Renner’s quick-witted Ian is a wonderful complement to Louise, and their natural chemistry makes for some of the film’s welcome moments of levity, particularly when they are taking on the powers-that-be who are seeking to neutralize the potential alien threat.
Arrival is the type of film I would advise most audiences to go into as blindly as possible, if only so that each of its increasingly engrossing narrative turns can unfold with maximum effect. Such an approach just makes Villeneuve and Heisserer’s dramatic journey all the more rewarding, although I can’t imagine that much could dampen the film’s significant emotional impact–and, boy, is it significant. In the hours following my viewing of the film, I was struck by the resonant, emotional imprint it left on me, the likes of which I have not felt since my first viewing of Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Arrival’s denouement is as poetic as it is heartrending, and it is hands down one of my favorite resolutions in a genre film in years.
Ultimately, Arrival shines as a smart and sophisticated cross-genre film that is also refreshing in its unassuming execution. Villeneuve has truly cemented his role as a masterful visionary with a keen sense for what moves film lovers, and for a genre enthusiast like myself, Arrival has all of the right components to be his best work to date. Some may ultimately find its muted approach to be trying at times, and I can understand if the film’s end game lacks the same punch for those going in expecting more traditional sci-fi fare; I particularly appreciated Villeneuve’s contained approach to such a grand story of this nature, however. He plays to audiences’ intellects and then to their hearts, maintaining respect for both. As a film lover, it is always a pleasure to experience a film that manages to substantially succeed in both regards.