“Arrival” is directed by Denis Villeneuve, and written by Eric Heisserer. It is based on the short story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang. It stars Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Michael Stuhlbarg, Forest Whitaker, Mark O’Brien, and Tzi Ma.
Denis Villeneuve is the man. I love his stuff. I think he’s one of the most exciting directors working today. He has an incredible command of mood, and each of his films has improved upon the last one. His deliciously bleak Sicario was one of my favorite films of last year. So I was hyped for Arrival, which sees Villeneuve tackling science-fiction, a new genre for him.
Everything Villeneuve has done up to this point can be described as Dark and Moody™. It was clear to me a while back that, unless the marketing materials for Arrival were incredibly misleading, he would not be going that route for this one. As far as I’m concerned, pushing your limits as an artist is an unambiguously positive thing so I was eager to see what he’d cooked up.
Our protagonist is Louise Banks (Adams), a linguist and college professor mourning the death of her daughter. When twelve spacecraft land across the globe in apparently arbitrary locations, the US government recruits her to lead a team of translators attempting to make contact with the aliens, their ultimate goal to discover their reason for coming to Earth in the first place.
And that’s really all you need to know. Arrival plays best with minimal foreknowledge. Villieneuve has done it again, folks. Arrival is a film with the formal rigor and sumptuous visuals of his past works, but with the darkness reined in. In its place is a hard-won optimism, and an emotional earnestness that is entirely new for the filmmaker. While his prior films pulsate with rage, pain, confusion, and fear, Arrival embodies familial love, the inherent beauty and value of human life, and optimism for the future. In many ways, it feels like an anti-Sicario. If that film was about humanity’s potential for trapping itself in ineffective systems and the inevitability of violence, then Arrival is about how we can come together to overcome those forces. Doing so, it argues, is necessary for our continued survival. It is ultimately about not letting fear win, a message which is certainly timely.
From its opening moments Arrival has a feeling of majesty. Louise’s backstory is conveyed in impressionistic, Malick-y flashbacks, and everything plays out with remarkable simplicity and clarity. The story never gets bogged down in the specifics. There is some fairly mind-bending stuff happening here, but it is all presented in a really straightforward, accessible way. It never feels like it is bending over backwards to impress us. Everything services the story and themes. It’s all very stripped down and even intimate. In its marvelous third act, Arrival masterfully weaves together its headier, more conceptual elements and the emotional human story. It accomplishes what Interstellar strived for with more economy and grace (not to mention less than one-third of its budget). And I haven’t even mentioned Amy Adams, who gives one of her strongest performances here. Her work is stunningly subtle and authentic, and is a big part of why the film is as emotionally affecting as it is.
Arrival’s biggest accomplishment is balancing science-fiction braininess, vital themes, and human emotion, all of which serve to bolster and enhance one another.