Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Mark O’Brien and Tzi Ma
A linguist is recruited by the military to assist in translating alien communications.
Director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario, Prisoners) continues his hot-streak of English language speaking films (and his hot-streak of film-making in general) with Arrival, possibly one of the most restrained and nuanced offerings from the science fiction genre of all time. There is quite literally about three seconds of action in the entire movie, so if that frightens you maybe you should rent Independence Day: Resurgence off your local cable provider. For everyone else that is actually intrigued by an alien invasion film built around the central idea of language, more specifically being the importance of communication between different lexicons then step right up because Arrival successfully manages to squeeze the most out of its themes presented.
Who are you gonna call when aliens land in 12 different locations surrounding Earth with no clear goal? The answer would be super intelligent linguist Louise (played by Amy Adams with as much restraint as the rest of the film) in hopes of teaching them English while humans learn alien gibberish in return. If a movie about humans teaching other sentiment beings the common tongue and vice versa sounds boring, you’re wrong, it’s not. What’s most fascinating about Arrival is the dialogue (that is so carefully laid out and written by Eric Heisserer, as to effortlessly blend it in with the core idea of the film) bringing to attention not just how important language is to civilization from a historical perspective, but even how different cultures and languages often contain different verbiage and meanings for certain words.
There is a necessity to walk on egg shells before reacting violently; it must be made absolute certain that communication between humans and aliens is crystal clear, and not reminiscent of some long-distance relationship between an American and an Australian causing misinterpretations within basic statements. A statement may represent something else in another language, possibly even so drastic that it could flip the entire dynamic of the conversation, and far too often we as people forget that; something so simple that it should already be ingrained into our minds.
The opposite side of the spectrum would be the knee-jerk reaction from military personnel and civilians we briefly catch glimpses of throughout the movie, who basically have the “THOSE ALIENS ARE GONNA TAKE OUR JERBS AND ANNIHILATE US” approach to the non-threatening peaceful invasion. Also witnessed are verbal attacks on each and every government for not dealing with the situation violently, proving once again that humanity will always fear anything it doesn’t understand. The contrast between these aforementioned snippets and the language barrier sessions conducted by scientists pull everything even further into focus; maybe, just maybe life is not Duke Nukem and these aliens are here for a purpose with good intentions.
Central themes regarding language aside, Arrival also focuses on a very intimate and personal story of Louise, experiencing hallucinations and flashbacks from possible overexposure to whatever radiation is present within the antechamber of the aliens. The film opens and begins with these flashbacks, but even from the beginning it should be overtly obvious that something more is going on here and that it will be the focal point of a much more intriguing plot point. Without spoiling anything, the twist to Arrival is everything from beautiful to heartbreaking. It’s not just a “holy shit” moment, but actually what audiences will be contemplating and analyzing on a much deeper level upon exiting the auditorium. Come for the aliens and then go see the movie again with a working knowledge of the ending. Trust me, in hindsight it will make the middle section of the film all the more rewarding, truly showcasing the brilliance of the script.
Arrival is also stunning on a technical level, featuring excellently composed vantage point shots of the alien spaceship pods (they are also fascinatingly designed looking like tall, black metallic ovals suspended off the ground by roughly 20 or 30 feet), and very mysterious shots of the tentacle style aliens surrounded in a white mist while separated from the humans by a glass wall. Aiding the beautiful cinematography is another pulse-pounding and emotional original score from Johann Johannsson (a frequent collaborator of director Denis Villeneuve) that really heightens the simultaneous feelings of suspense and dread whenever the humans make contact. The film also wisely uses ‘On The Nature of Daylight’ by Max Richter to really tug on the heartstrings in a few select certain sequences.
The only real gripe anyone can lobby at Arrival is the fact that it is a film fully relaxed and not concerned with building to any action whatsoever. Even the climax of the movie is just a phone call, which might be disappointing to some, but also stays in-line with the central theme regarding the importance of language in certain stand-off affairs. The real excitement from Arrival comes from the twist, and then reanalyzing everything you just witnessed for an even greater perspective. Once again. I hesitate to claim that this movie is primarily about aliens, because that was one of the last things on my mind after the ending; it’s all about the journey of Louise and the struggles of her personal life placed on her shoulders, along with some mind-blowing cards she has been dealt.
Either way, Arrival is another knockout from Villeneuve, and as fans of science fiction we should all be thrilled that he is the one tackling a Blade Runner sequel. If that movie doesn’t deliver, don’t place the blame on him, but go for the jugular on the creative deathblow that is Hollywood, who could very well want something solely appealing to mainstream audiences. Whatever happens, we’ll always have this gem; it’s a lock for a Best Picture nomination.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★